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W ith startling beauty and sardonic wit, Anya von 
Bremzen tells an intimate yet epic story of life 
in that vanished empire known as the USSR— a 
place where every edible morsel was packed with emo- 
tional and political meaning. 

Born in 1963, Anya grew up in a communal Moscow 
apartment where eighteen families shared one kitchen. 
She sang odes to Lenin, black-marketeered Juicy Fruit 
gum at school, watched her father brew moonshine, 
and, like most Soviet citizens, longed for a taste of the 
mythical West. It was a life by turns absurd, drab, na- 
ively joyous, melancholy— and ultimately intolerable to 
her anti-Soviet mother, Larisa. When Anya was ten, she 
and Larisa fled the political repression of Brezhnev-era 
Russia, arriving in Philadelphia with no winter coats 
and no right of return. 

Now Anya occupies two parallel food universes: 
one where she writes about four-star restaurants, the 
other where a taste of humble kolbasa transports her 
back to her scarlet-blazed socialist past. To bring that 
past to life in its full flavor, both bitter and sweet, Anya 
and Larisa embark on a journey unlike any other: they 
decide to eat and cook their way through every de- 
cade of the Soviet experience— turning Larisa’s kitchen 
into a “time machine and an incubator of memories.” 
Together, mother and daughter re-create meals both 
modest and sumptuous, featuring a decadent fish pie 
from the pages of Chekhov, chanakhi (Stalin’s favorite 
Georgian stew), blini, and more. 

Through these meals, Anya tells the story of three 
Soviet generations— masterfully capturing the strange 
mix of idealism, cynicism, longing, and terror that 
defined Soviet life. We meet her grand father Naum, 
a glamorous intelligence chief undvr Si Sin, and her 





“This is much more than a memoir or an extended meditation on food and 
longing: this is history at its best, accessed through the kitchen door. Writ- 
ten with verve and seasoned with perfect doses of that irony that communist 
societies excel at cultivating, this book is a rare and delightful treat, as much 
of a page-turner as the best of novels and as enlightening an introduction 
to Soviet history as one could ever hope to find." 

-Carlos Eire, author of Waiting for Snow in Havana 

“Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking is a monumental but deeply human book 
that reads like a great Russian novel, filled with dark humor and nostalgia. It 
opens up an entire universe, teaching us about the many deep meanings of 
food: cultural, political, social, historical, personal.” 

— Ferran Adria, chef-proprietor, El Bulli 

"A fascinating, colorful, and at times oddly tender look at the history of the 
former Soviet Union as seen through Anya von Bremzen's intimate recollec- 
tions of food— including foods never eaten or never to be sampled again. Von 
Bremzen does a soulful job of capturing Russians’ complicated and even tor- 
tured relationship with food.’ What emerges is her own complicated yet loving 
relationship to the culture she and her mother willingly left behind, but could 
never quite abandon." 

— Lucette Lagnado, author of The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit 

“Anya von Bremzen describes the foods of her past powerfully, poetically, 
and with a wicked sense of humor. Anyone can make a fancy layer cake sound 
delicious. To invoke an entire culture and era through an intimate story about 
a salad or soup— that’s taking food writing to a whole different level.” 

-David Chang, chef-founder, Momofuku 

“Here’s a surprise: a wry account of how the Soviet Union tasted. The author's 
mother, the brilliantly resourceful daughter of a top military intelligence of- 
ficer, appears to come straight out of Russian literature— only to become an 
emigre, a Pathmark shopper, and her daughter’s co-conspirator in Soviet food 
nostalgia and self-discovery. A wink, a laugh, a transgression, a sweet sad life 
over the generations that throws an epic history into a new light." 

-Stephen Kotkin, professor of history, Princeton University; 
author of Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as Civilization 






Anya von Bremzen 



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Copyright © 2013 by Anya von Bremzen 
All rights reserved. 

Published in the United States by Crown Publishers, an imprint of the Crown 
Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. 

w w w.crownpubl ish i 

CROWN and the Crown colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc. 

Selected recipes originally appeared, in somewhat different form, in Saveur and Food 
& Wine magazines. Please to the Table by Anya von Bremzen and John Weichman (New 
York: Workman Publishing Company, 1990), and in The Greatest Dishes! by Anya von 
Bremzen (New York: William Morrow, 2004). 

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data 
Von Bremzen, Anya. 

Mastering the art of Soviet cooking : a memoir of food and longing / 

Anya von Bremzen. — First edition, 
pages cm 

Includes bibliographical references. 

I. Von Bremzen, Anya. 2. Food writers — United States — Biography. 

3. Women cooks — Soviet Union — Biography. 4. Cooking, Russian — History — 
20th century. 5. Food habits— Soviet Union. 6. Soviet Union — Social life 
and customs. 7. Russia (Federation)— Social conditions — 1991- 8. Russian 

Americans — Biography. 9. Moscow (Russia) — Biography. I. Title. 

TX649.V66 2013 

641.5947— dc23 2013007787 

isbn 978-0'307'8868i'i 
elSBN 978-0'307'88683'5 

Printed in the United States of America 

Book design by Elina D. Nudelman 
Jacket design by Lisa Horton 
Jacket illustration by Claudia Pearson 
Author photograph by John von Pamer 

Photograph on opening page for Part TV courtesy of John Welchman 
10 987654321 

First Edition 

For Larisa 




Prologue: Poisoned Madeleines 1 




1910s: The Last Days of the Czars 


1920s: Lenin's Cake 33 




1930s: Thank You, Comrade Stalin, 
for Our Happy Childhood 61 


1940s: Of Bullets and Bread 87 


1950s: Tasty and Healthy 117 




1960s: Corn, Communism, Caviar 


1970s: Mayonnaise of My Homeland 


part iv RETURNS 

eight 1980s: Moscow Through the Shot Glass 209 

nine 1990s: Broken Banquets 241 

ten Twenty-first Century: Putin on the Ritz 271 


Author’s Note 329 
Acknowledgments 331 
Selected Sources 333 










Whenever my mother and I cook together, she tells me her dreams. 
So rich and intense is Mom’s dream life, she’s given to cataloging and 
historicizing it: brooding black-and-white visions from her Stalinist 
childhood; sleek cold war thrillers laced with KGB spooks; melodramas 
starring duty-crushed lovers. 

In a nod, I suppose, to her Iron Curtain past, Mother gets trapped 
in a lot of her dreams — although now, at seventy-nine years of age and 
after nearly four American decades, she tends to get trapped in pretty 
cool places. Deep, for example, in a mazelike, art-filled palace, one much 
resembling the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where, having retired as a 
schoolteacher, she works as a docent. In this dream’s Technicolor finale, 
an orange balloon rescues Mom from her labyrinth and deposits her at 
the museum’s sumptuous cafe. Whereupon she gorges on cream puffs. 

But it’s one dream of hers from long ago, one I remember her tell- 
ing me of many times, that’s most emblematic. Here she is, skinny, 
short-haired, tiptoeing into my bedroom as I awake to the hopeless dark- 
ness of a Soviet socialist winter. We’re in our minuscule flat in a shoddy 
Khrushchev-issue stained-concrete prefab on the outskirts of Moscow. 
It’s 1968; I am five. Soviet tanks have just rolled into Prague, my dad 
has abandoned us recently, and we’ve moved here from a Kafka-esque 
communal apartment near the Kremlin where eighteen families shared 
one kitchen. Mom, in her robe with faded blue cornflowers, sits on my 



bed, presses a reassuring kiss to my forehead. But in her eyes I see such 
toska (that peculiarly Russian ache of the soul), such desperate longing, 
I know right away she’s been visited once more by that dream. 

“Listen, listen, Anyuta,” she murmurs. “Yet again I’m transformed 
into a lastochka (a swallow) ... I escape from Russia, flying across the So- 
viet border, and somehow no one asks me for documents. And suddenly 
I’m in Paris! In Paris! I circle over the ocher-colored streets, I recognize 
them from Utrillo paintings. On a tiny rue— its called ‘Street of a Cat 
Who Fishes’— I notice an enchanting cafe. I speed down to the impos- 
sibly colorful awning, I’m dizzy from the delicious smell of the food, 
everything inside me is aching to taste it, to join the people inside . . .” 

At this point my mother always woke up. Always on the wrong side 
of the entrance. Always ravenous, overwhelmed by yearning for a world 
beyond the border she was never destined to see. By nostalgia for flavors 
that would forever elude her. 

All happy food memories are alike; all unhappy food memories are un- 
happy after their own fashion. 

Mom and I both grew up within a triumphalist, scarlet-blazed fairy 
tale of socialist abundance and glorious harvests. Our experiences, 
though, featured no happy kitchens enveloped in an idyllic haze of va- 
nilla, no kindly matriarchs setting golden holiday roasts on the table. 
Tea cakes rich in bourgeois butter? I do have such a memory . . . It’s 
of Mom reading Proust aloud in our Khrushchevian slum; me utterly 
bored by the Frenchman’s sensory reveries but besotted with the idea of 
the real, edible cookie. What did it taste like, that exotic capitalist madeleine ? I 
desperately wanted to know. 

Inevitably, a story about Soviet food is a chronicle of longing, of un- 
requited desire. So what happens when some of your most intense cu- 
linary memories involve foods you hadn’t actually tasted? Memories of 
imaginings, of received histories; feverish collective yearning produced 
by seventy years of geopolitical isolation and scarcity . . . 

Until recently I didn’t talk about such memories much. Asked 
why I write about food, I’d just rattle off my well-rehearsed story. 


Prologue: Poisoned Madeleines 

How my mother and I emigrated from Moscow without my father in 
1974 — stateless refugees with no winter coats and no right of return. 
How, after I graduated from Juilliard, my piano career was cut short in 
the late eighties by a wrist injury. And how, searching for a new start, I 
fell into food, almost by accident, really. And I never looked back. Fob 
lowing my first cookbook, Please to the Table , about the cuisines of the for- 
mer USSR, nice things kept happening: exciting magazine stories, more 
cookbooks, awards, almost two decades of travel and memorable meals. 

Here’s what I rarely mentioned: scribbled skull-and-bones warn- 
ings affixed to pots in my grandmother’s communal apartment kitchen, 
where comrade residents pilfered one another’s soup meat. The af- 
ternoons of me desperately gagging on caviar at my kindergarten for 
the offspring of the Central Committee— gagging because along with 
the elite Party fish eggs I felt I was ingesting the very ideology my 
anti-Soviet mom couldn’t stomach. Nor did I mention the girls’ bath- 
room at School no, where I, a nine-year-old fledgling black marketeer 
in a scratchy brown uniform, charged my Soviet classmates five kopeks 
to touch the bottle of Coca-Cola that friends had brought us from the 
mythical zagranitsa (abroad). Nor my present-day impulse to steal every 
last croissant from the splendid free breakfast buffets at the lovely ho- 
tels where I often stay for my work. 

What would be the point of confessing my constant feeling of in- 
habiting two parallel food universes: one where degustation menus 
at places like Per Se or Noma are routine; the other where a simple 
banana — a once-a-year treat back in the USSR — still holds an almost 
talismanic sway over my psyche? 

The stories I’ve kept to myself are the stuff of this book. Ultimately, 
they’re why I really write about food. But they aren’t just my stories. For 
any ex-citizen of a three-hundred-million-strong Soviet superpower, 
food is never a mere individual matter. In 1917 bread riots sparked the 
overthrow of the czar, and, seventy-four years later, catastrophic food 
shortages helped push Gorbachev’s floundering empire into the dust- 
bin. In between, seven million people perished from hunger during 



Stalin’s collectivization; four million more starved to death during Hit- 
ler’s war. Even in calmer times, under Khrushchev and Brezhnev, the 
daily drama of putting a meal on the table trumped most other con- 
cerns. Across eleven time zones the collective socialist fate of standing 
in food lines united comrades from the Union’s fifteen ethnic repub- 
lics. Food was an abiding theme of Soviet political history, permeating 
every nook and cranny of our collective unconscious. Food brought us 
together in obsessive Soviet hospitality rituals — more herring, more Doc- 
tor’s Kolbasa— and in our shared envy and spite for the privileged few, 
the grifters and Party hacks with their access to better kolbasa (sau- 
sage). Food anchored the domestic realities of our totalitarian state, 
supplying a shimmer of desire to a life that was mostly drab, sometimes 
absurdly comical, on occasion unbearably tragic, but just as often na- 
ively optimistic and joyous. Food, as one academic has noted, defined 
how Russians endured the present, imagined the future, and connected 
to their past. 

That past is now gone. Vanished after the Soviet Union’s collapse. 
In place of our “Socialist Homeland” there are cultural ruins, a vast 
archaeological site of a Soviet Atlantis. But we’re not ready to let go of 
this rubble. Toppled headless statues of leaders, songbooks and candy 
wrappers, once-scarlet Young Pioneer scarves, triangular Soviet milk 
cartons blackened with grime — we cling to these fragments. Unlike the 
melancholy ruins that fueled the Romantics’ nostalgia for an idealized 
past, ours are pieces of our physical homes, of the lives we once lived. 
For us they’re still freighted with meaning: historical, political, per- 
sonal. And almost always ambiguous. 

I started my own collection of socialist fragments in 1974, weeks into 
our Philadelphia life. Mom instantly fell for Amerika. Me? Huddled on 
our bony refugee sofa I read Chekhov’s Three Sisters and whimpered 
along with the characters: “To Moscow ... to Moscow.” My childhood 
fantasies of capitalist delicacies crashed against our first meal at the 
Robin Hood Diner. I choked on the cloying fluff of American cole- 
slaw, stared in shock at the Day-Glo that is Velveeta. At home, while 


Prologue: Poisoned Madeleines 

my mother gleefully slapped Oscar Mayer bologna onto alien Wonder 
Bread. I pined for the fragrant bricks of Moscow sourdough rye and the 
stale reek of cheapo Krakovskaya kolbasa. I’m pretty sure I’d lost my 
sense of taste those first Philadelphia months. Because depleted of po- 
litical pathos, hospitality, that heroic aura of scarcity, food didn’t seem 
much of anything anymore. 

Like a raggedy orphan, I paced our apartment, repeating to myself 
our sardonic Soviet dejitsit (shortage) jokes. “Would you slice one hun- 
dred grams of kolbasa?” asks a man in a store. “Bring the kolbasa and 
we’ll slice,” answers the salesgirl. Or “Why are you emigrating?” “Coz 
I’m sick of celebrations,” says the Jew. “Bought toilet paper — celebration; 
bought kolbasa — more celebrating.” 

In Philadelphia, no one celebrated Oscar Mayer bologna. 

To revive my taste buds I began playing a game in my head. Picturing 
myself at a dacha (country cottage) surrounded by prickly gooseberry 
shrubs, I’d mentally preserve and pickle the tastes and smells of my So- 
viet socialist past in an imaginary three-liter jar of memory. In went the 
Order of Lenin Red October chocolate bars with a mirthful kid on the 
wrapper. In went the scarlet-wrapped Bolshevik Factory Jubilee Bis- 
cuits, the ones that dissolved so poignantly when dipped in tea from a 
yellow packet adorned with an elephant. In my mind’s eye I unwrapped 
the foil from the squishy rectangles of Friendship Cheese. Paused to 
dig an imaginary aluminum fork into the industrial breading of the 
six-kopek meat patties named after Stalin’s food supply commissar. 

There was, however, an ideological cloud darkening my nostal- 
gia exercise. The Friendship Cheese, the kolbasa, the chocolates— all 
were produced by the reviled Party-state we’d fled. Recalling Mom’s 
Proust recitations, I’ve come up with a phrase to describe them. Poisoned 

This is my “poisoned madeleine” memoir. It was my mother, my 
frequent co-conspirator in the kitchen and my conduit to our past, 
who suggested the means to convey this epic disjunction, this un- 
ruly collision of collectivist myths and personal antimyths. We would 



reconstruct every decade of Soviet history— from the prequel 1910s to 
the postscript present day— through the prism of food. Together, we’d 
embark on a yearlong journey unlike any other: eating and cooking our 
way through decade after decade of Soviet life, using her kitchen and 
dining room as a time machine and an incubator of memories. Memo- 
ries of wartime rationing cards and grotesque shared kitchens in com- 
munal apartments. Of Lenin’s bloody grain requisitioning and Stalin’s 
table manners. Of Khrushchev’s kitchen debates and Gorbachev’s di- 
sastrous antialcohol policies. Of food as the focal point of our everyday 
lives, and— despite all the deprivations and shortages— of compulsive 
hospitality and poignant, improbable feasts. 






Nly mother is expecting guests. 

In just a few hours in this sweltering July heat wave, eight people 
will show up for an extravagant czarist-era dinner at her small Queens 
apartment. But her kitchen resembles a building site. Pots tower and 
teeter in the sink; the food processor and blender drone on in unison. 
In a shiny bowl on Mom’s green faux-granite counter, a porous blob of 
yeast dough seems weirdly alive. I’m pretty sure it’s breathing. Unfazed, 
Mother simultaneously blends, sautes, keeps an eye on Chris Matthews 
on MSNBC, and chatters away on her cordless phone. At this moment 
she suggests a plump modern-day elf, multitasking away in her orange 
Indian housedress. 

Ever since I can remember, my mother has cooked like this, phone 
tucked under her chin. Of course, back in Brezhnev’s Moscow in the 
seventies when I was a kid, the idea of an “extravagant czarist dinner” 
would have provoked sardonic laughter. And the cord of our antedilu- 
vian black Soviet telefon was so traitorously twisted, I once tripped on 
it while carrying a platter of Mom’s lamb pilaf to the low three-legged 
table in the cluttered space where my parents did their living, sleeping, 
and entertaining. 

Right now, as one of Mom’s ancient emigre friends fills her ear with 
cultural gossip, that pilaf episode returns to me in cinematic slow mo- 
tion. Masses of yellow rice cascade onto our Armenian carpet. Biddy, 



my two-month-old puppy, greedily laps up every grain, her eyes and 
tongue swelling shockingly in an instant allergic reaction to lamb fat. 

I howl, fearing for Biddy’s life. My father berates Mom for her phone 

Mom managed to rescue the disaster with her usual flair, dotty and 
determined. By the time guests arrived— with an extra four non-sober 
comrades— she’d conjured up a tasty fantasia from two pounds of the 
proletarian wurst called sosiskt. These she'd cut into petal-like shapes, 
splayed in a skillet, and fried up with eggs. Her creation landed at table 
under provocative blood-red squiggles of ketchup, that decadent capi- 
talist condiment. For dessert: Mom’s equally spontaneous apple cake. 
“Guest-at- the- doorstep apple charlotte,” she dubbed it. 

Guests! They never stopped crowding Mom’s doorstep, whether at 
our apartment in the center of Moscow or at the boxy immigrant dwell- 
ing in Philadelphia where she and I landed in 1974. Guests overrun her 
current home in New York, squatting for weeks, eating her out of the 
house, borrowing money and books. Every so often I Google “compul- 
sive hospitality syndrome.” But there’s no cure. Not for Mom the old 
Russian adage “An uninvited guest is worse than an invading Tatar.” 
Her parents’ house was just like this, her sister’s even more so. 

Tonight’s dinner, however, is different. It will mark our archival 
adieu to classic Russian cuisine. For such an important occasion Mom 
has agreed to keep the invitees to just eight after I slyly quoted a line from 
a Roman scholar and satirist: “The number of dinner guests should be 
more than the Graces and less than the Muses.” Mom’s quasi-religious 
respect for culture trumps even her passion for guests. Who is she to 
disagree with the ancients? 

And so, on this diabolically torrid late afternoon in Queens, the 
two of us are sweating over a decadent feast set in the imagined 1910s — 
Russia’s Silver Age, artistically speaking. The evening will mark our 
hail and farewell to a grandiose decade of Moscow gastronomy. To a 
food culture that flourished at the start of the twentieth century and 
disappeared abruptly when the 1917 revolution transformed Russian 
cuisine and culture into Soviet cuisine and culture— the only version we 


J9JOS: The Last Days of the Czars 

Mom and I have not taken the occasion lightly. 

The horseradish and lemon vodkas that I’ve been steeping for days 
are chilling in their cut-crystal carafes. The caviar glistens. We’ve even 
gone to the absurd trouble of brewing our own kvass, a folkloric beverage 
from fermented black bread that’s these days mostly just mass-produced 
fizz. Who knows? Besides communing with our ancestral stomachs, 
this might be our last chance on this culinary journey to eat really well. 

“The burbot liver— what to do about the burbot liver?” Mom la- 
ments, finally off the phone. 

Noticing how poignantly scratched her knuckles are from assorted 
gratings, I reply, for the umpteenth time, that burbot, noble member 
of the freshwater cod family so fetishized by pre-revolutionary Rus- 
sian gourmands, is nowhere to be had in Jackson Heights, Queens. 
Frustrated sighing. As always, my pragmatism interferes with Mom’s 
dreaming and scheming. And let’s not even mention viziga, the desic- 
cated dorsal cord of a sturgeon. Burbot liver was the czarist foie gras, 
viziga its shark’s fin. Chances of finding either in any zip code here- 
abouts? Not slim — none. 

But still, we’ve made progress. 

Several test runs for crispy brains in brown butter have yielded 
smashing results. And despite the state of Mom’s kitchen, and the 
homey, crepuscular clutter of her book-laden apartment, her din- 
ing table is a thing of great beauty. Crystal goblets preen on the flo- 
ral, antique-looking tablecloth. Pale blue hydrangeas in an art nouveau 
pitcher I found at a flea market in Buenos Aires bestow a subtle 
fin-de-siecle opulence. 

I unpack the cargo of plastic containers and bottles I’ve lugged over 
from my house two blocks away. Since Mom’s galley kitchen is far too 
small for two cooks, much smaller than an aristocrat’s broom closet, 
I’ve already brewed the kvass and prepared the trimmings for an anach- 
ronistic chilled fish and greens soup called botvinya. I was also desig- 
nated steeper of vodkas and executer of Guriev kasha, a dessert loaded 
with deep historical meaning and a whole pound of home-candied nuts. 
Mom has taken charge of the main course and the array of zakuski, or 


A look at the clock and she gasps. “The kulehiaka dough! Check it!” 

I check it. Still rising, still bubbling. I give it a bang to deflate— and 
the tang of fermenting yeast tickles my nostrils, evoking a fleeting col- 
lective memory. Or a memory of a received memory. 1 pinch off a piece 
of dough and hand it to Mom to assess. She gives me a shrug as if to say, 
“You’re the cookbook writer.” 

But I’m glad I let her take charge of the kulebiaka. This extravagant 
Russian fish pie, this history lesson in a pastry case, will be the piece de 
resistance of our banquet tonight. 

★ ★ ★ 

“The kulebiaka must make your mouth water, it must lie before you, 
naked, shameless, a temptation. You wink at it, you cut off a sizeable 
slice, and you let your fingers just play over it. . . . You eat it, the butter 
drips from it like tears, and the filling is fat, juicy, rich with eggs, giblets, 
onions . . .” 

So waxed Anton Pavlovich Chekhov in his little fiction “The Siren,” 
which Mom and I have been salivating over during our preparations, 
just as we first did back in our unglorious socialist pasts. It wasn’t only 
us Soviet-born who fixated on food. Chekhov’s satiric encomium to 
outsize Slavic appetite is a lover’s rapturous fantasy. Sometimes it seems 
that for nineteenth-century Russian writers, food was what landscape 
(or maybe class?) was for the English. Or war for the Germans, love 
for the French — a subject encompassing the great themes of comedy, 
tragedy, ecstasy, and doom. Or perhaps, as the contemporary author 
Tatyana Tolstaya suggests, the “orgiastic gorging” of Russian authors 
was a compensation for literary taboos on eroticism. One must note, 
too, alas, Russian writers’ peculiarly Russian propensity for moralizing. 
Rosy hams, amber fish broths, blini as plump as “the shoulder of a mer- 
chant’s daughter” (Chekhov again), such literary deliciousness often 
serves an ulterior agenda of exposing gluttons as spiritually bankrupt 
philistines — or lethargic losers such as the alpha glutton Oblomov. Is 
this a moral trap? I keep asking myself. Are we enticed to salivate at 
these lines so we’ll end up feeling guilty? 


7970S.- The Last Days of the Czars 

But it’s hard not to salivate. Chekhov, Pushkin, Tolstoy— they all 
devote some of their most fetching pages to the gastronomical. As for 
Mom’s beloved Nikolai Gogol, the author of Dead Souls anointed the 
stomach the body’s “most noble” organ. Besotted with eating both on 
and off the page— sour cherry dumplings from his Ukrainian child- 
hood, pastas from his sojourns in Rome — scrawny Gogol could polish 
off a gargantuan dinner and start right in again. While traveling he 
sometimes even churned his own butter. “The belly is the belle of his 
stories, the nose is their beau,” declared Nabokov. In 1852, just short of 
his forty-third birthday, in the throes of religious mania and gastroin- 
testinal torments, Nikolai Vasilievich committed a slow suicide rich in 
Gogolian irony: he refused to eat. Yes, a complicated, even tortured, rela- 
tionship with food has long been a hallmark of our national character. 

According to one scholarly count, no less than eighty-six kinds of 
edibles appear in Dead Souls, Gogol’s chronicle of a grifter’s circuit from 
dinner to dinner in the vast Russian countryside. Despairing over not 
being able to scale the heights of the novel’s first volume, poor wretched 
Gogol burned most of the second. What survives includes the most fa- 
mous literary ode to kulebiaka — replete with a virtual recipe. 

“Make a four-cornered kulebiaka,” instructs Petukh, a spiritually 
bankrupt glutton who made it through the flames. And then: 

“In one corner put the cheeks and dried spine of a sturgeon, in 
another put some buckwheat, and some mushrooms and onion, 
and some soft fish roe, and brains, and something else as well. . . . 
As for the underneath ... see that it’s baked so that it’s quite . . . well 
not done to the point of crumbling but so that it will melt in the 
mouth like snow and not make any crunching sound. 

Petukh smacked his lips as he spoke.” 

Generations of Russians have smacked their own lips at this pas- 
sage. Historians, though, suspect that this chimerical “four-cornered” 
kulebiaka might have been a Gogolian fiction. So what then of the gen- 
uine article, which is normally oblong and layered? 

To telescope quickly: kulebiaka descends from the archaic Slavic 
ptrog (filled pie). Humbly born, they say, in the 1600s, it had by its 



turn-of-the-twentieth-century heyday evolved into a regal golden-brown 
case fancifully decorated with cut-out designs. Concealed within: aro- 
matic layers of fish and viziga, a cornucopia of forest-picked mushrooms, 
and butter-splashed buckwheat or rice, all the tiers separated by thin 
crepes called blinchiki — to soak up the juices. 

Mom and I argued over every other dish on our menu. But on this 
we agreed: without kulebiaka, there could be no proper Silver Age Mos- 
cow repast. 

★ ★ ★ 

When my mother, Larisa (Lara, Larochka) Frumkina— -Frumkin in 
English — was growing up in the 1930s high Stalinist Moscow, the idea 
of a decadent czarist-era banquet constituted exactly what it would in 
the Brezhnevian seventies: laughable blue cheese from the moon. So- 
siski were Mom’s favorite food. I was hooked on them too, though 
Mom claims that the sosiski of my childhood couldn’t hold a candle to 
the juicy Stalinist article. Why do these proletarian franks remain the 
madeleine of every Homo sovieticus ? Because besides sosiski with canned 
peas and kotleti (minced meat patties) with kasha, cabbage-intensive 
soups, mayo-laden salads, and watery fruit kompot for dessert— there 
wasn’t all that much to eat in the Land of the Soviets. 

Unless, of course, you were privileged. In our joyous classless soci- 
ety, this all-important matter of privilege has nagged at me since my 
early childhood. 

I first glimpsed— or rather heari—the world of privileged food con- 
sumption during my first three years of life, at the grotesque communal 
Moscow apartment into which I was born in 1963- The apartment sat 
so close to the Kremlin, we could practically hear the midnight chimes 
of the giant clock on the Spassky Tower. There was another sound too, 
keeping us up: the roaring BLARGHHH of our neighbor Misha puking 
his guts out. Misha, you see, was a food store manager with a proprie- 
tary attitude toward the socialist food supply, likely a black market mil- 
lionaire who shared our communal lair only for fear that flaunting his 
wealth would attract the unwanted attention of the anti-embezzlement 


7 9lOS: The Last Days of the Czars 

authorities. Misha and Musya, his blond, big-bosomed wife, lived out a 
Mature Socialist version of bygone decadence. Night after night they 
dined out at Moscow’s few proper restaurants (accessible to party big- 
wigs, foreigners, and comrades with illegal rubles), dropping the equiv- 
alent of Mom’s monthly salary on meals that Misha couldn’t even keep 
in his stomach. 

When the pair stayed home, they ate unspeakable delicacies — 
batter-fried chicken tenders, for instance —prepared for them by the 
loving hands of Musya’s mom, Baba Mila, she a blubbery former peas- 
ant with one eye, four— or was it six?— gold front teeth, and a healthy 
contempt for the nonprivileged. 

‘‘So, making kotleti today,” Mila would say in the kitchen we all 
shared, fixing her monocular gaze on the misshapen patties in Mom’s 
chipped aluminum skillet. “Muuuuusya!” she’d holler to her daughter. 
“Larisa’s making kotleti!” 

“Good appetite, Larochka!” (Musya was fond of my mom.) 

“Muuusya! Would you eat kotleti?” 

“Me? Never!” 

“Aha! You see?” And Mila would wag a swollen finger at Mom. 

One day my tiny underfed mom couldn’t restrain herself. Back from 
work, tired and ravenous, she pilfered a chicken nugget from a tray 
Mila had left in the kitchen. The next day I watched as, red-faced and 
teary-eyed, she knocked on Misha’s door to confess her theft. 

“The chicken?” cackled Mila, and I still recall being struck by how 
her twenty-four-karat mouth glinted in the dim hall light. “Help your- 
self anytime— we dump that shit anyway .” 

And so it was that about once a week we got to eat shit destined for 
the economic criminal’s garbage. To us, it tasted pretty ambrosial. 

In 1970, into the eleventh year of their on-and-off marriage, my par- 
ents got back together after a four-year separation and we moved to an 
apartment in the Arbat. And kulebiaka entered my life. Here, in Mos- 
cow’s most aristocratic old neighborhood, I was shooed out of the house 
to buy the pie in its Soviet incarnation at the take-out store attached to 



Praga, a restaurant famed “before historical materialism” (that’s ironic 
Sovietese for “distant past”) for its plate-size rasstegai pies with two fill- 
ings: sturgeon and sterlet. 

Even in the dog days of Brezhnev, Praga was fairly dripping with 
klass — a fancy restoran where Misha types groped peroxide blondes while 
a band blasted, and third-world diplomats hosted receptions in a series 
of ornate private rooms. 

“Car of Angola’s ambassador to the door!” 

This was music to my seven-year- old ears. 

If I loitered outside Praga intently enough, if my young smile and 
“Khello, khau yoo laik Moskou?” were sufficiently charming, a friendly dip- 
lomat might toss me a five-pack of Juicy Fruit. The next day, in the girls’ 
bathroom, aided by ruler and penknife, I would sell off the gum, mil- 
limeter by millimeter, to favored classmates. Even a chewed-up blob of 
Juicy Fruit had some value, say a kopek or two, as long as you didn’t mas- 
ticate more than five times, leaving some of that floral Wrigley magic 
for the next masticator to savor. Our teacher’s grave warnings that shar- 
ing capitalist gum causes syphilis only added to the illegal thrill of it all. 

I loved everything about shopping at Praga. Loved skipping over 
the surges of brown melted snow and sawdust that comrade janitors 
gleefully swept right over the customers’ feet. Loved inhaling the sig- 
nature scent of stale pork fat, peregar (hangover breath), and the sickly 
sweet top notes of Red Moscow perfume. Loved Tyotya Grusha (Aunt 
Pear), Praga’s potato-nosed saleslady, clacking away on her abacus with 
savage force. Once, guided by some profound late socialist instinct, I 
shared with Grusha a five-pack of Juicy Fruit. She snatched it without 
even a thank-you, but from then on she always made sure to reserve a 
kulebiaka for me. “Here, you loudmouthed infection,” she’d say, also 
slipping me a slab of raisin-studded poundcake under the counter. 

And this is how I came to appreciate the importance of black mar- 
keteering, blat (connections), and bribery. I was now inching my own 
way toward privilege. 

Wearing shiny black rubber galoshes over my valenki (felt boots) 
and a coat made of “mouse fur’ ’(in the words of my dad), I toted the 
Pravda- wrapped kulebiaka back to our family table, usually taking the 


1910S-. The Last Days of the Czars 

long way home — past onion-domed churches now serving as ware- 
houses, past gracious cream and green neoclassical facades scrawled 
with the unprintable slang that Russians call mat. I felt like Moscow 
belonged to me on those walks; along its frozen streetscape I was 
a flaneur flush with illicit cash. On Kalinin Prospect, the modernist 
grand boulevard that dissected the old neighborhood. I’d pull off my 
mittens in the unbearable cold to count out twenty icy kopeks for the 
blue-coated lady with her frosty zinc ice cream box. It was almost vio- 
lent, the shock of pain on my teeth as I sank them into the waffle cup of 
vanilla plomhir with a cream rosette, its concrete-like hardness defying 
the flat wooden scooping spoon. Left of Praga, the Arbatskaya metro 
station rose, star-shaped and maroon and art deco, harboring its squad 
of clunky gray gazirovka (soda) machines. One kopek for unflavored; 
three kopeks for a squirt of aromatic thick yellow syrup. Scoring the 
soda: a matter of anxious uncertainty. Not because soda or syrup ran 
out, but because alkogoliks were forever stealing the twelve-sided beveled 
drinking glass— that Soviet domestic icon. If, miraculously, the drunks 
had left the glass behind, I thrilled in pressing it hard upside down on 
the machine’s slatted tray to watch the powerful water jet rinse the glass 
of alcoholic saliva. Who even needed the soda? 

Deeper into Old Arbat, at the Konservi store with its friezes of so- 
cialist fruit cornucopias, I’d pause for my ritual twelve-kopek glass of 
sugary birch-tree juice dispensed from conical vintage glass vats with 
spigots. Then, sucking on a dirty icicle, I’d just wander off on a whim, 
lost in a delta of narrow side streets that weaved and twisted like braids, 
each bearing a name of the trade it once supported: Tablecloth Lane, 
Bread Alley. Back then, before capitalism disfigured Moscow’s old cen- 
ter with billboards and neons and antihistorical historicist mansions, 
some Arbat streets did retain a certain nineteenth-century purity. 

At home I usually found Mom in the kitchen, big black receiver 
under her chin, cooking while discussing a new play or a book with a 
girlfriend. Dad struck a languid Oblomovian pose on the couch, play- 
ing cards with himself, sipping cold tea from his orange cup with white 

“And how was your walk?” Mother always wanted to know. “Did 



you remember to stop by the house on Povarskaya Street where Natasha 
from War and Peace lived?” At the mention of Tolstoy, the Juicy Fruit in 
my pocket would congeal into a guilty yellow lump on my conscience. 
Natasha Rostova and my mom— they were so poetic, so gullible. And 
I? What was I but a crass mini-Misha? Dad usually came to the rescue: 
“So, let’s have the kulebiaka. Or did Praga run out?” For me, I wanted 
to reply, Praga never runs out! But it seemed wise not to boast of my 
special blat with Aunt Grusha, the saleslady, in the presence of my sweet 
innocent mother. 

Eating kulebiaka on Sundays was our nod to a family ritual— even if 
the pie I’d deposit on the kitchen table of our five-hundred-square-foot 
two-room apartment shared only the name with the horn of plenty 
orgiastically celebrated by Gogol and Chekhov. More bulka (white 
breadroll) than ipirog, late-socialist kulebiaka was a modest rectangle of 
yeast dough, true to Soviet form concealing a barely there layer of boiled 
ground meat or cabbage. It now occurs to me that our Sunday kulebiaka 
from Praga expressed the frugality of our lives as neatly as the grandiose 
version captured czarist excess. We liked our version just fine. The yeast 
dough was tasty, especially with Mom’s thin vegetarian borscht, and 
somehow the whole package was just suggestive enough to inspire fe- 
verish fantasies about pre-revolutionary Russian cuisine, so intimately 
familiar to us from books, and so unattainable. 

Dreaming about food, 1 already knew, was just as rewarding as 

★ ★ ★ 

For my tenth birthday my parents gave me Moscow and Muscovites, a book 
by Vladimir Giliarovsky, darling of fin-de-siecle Moscow, who covered 
city affairs for several local newspapers. Combining a Dickensian eye 
with the racy style of a tabloid journalist, plus a dash of Zola-esque nat- 
uralism, Giliarovsky offered in Moscow and Muscovites an entertaining, if 
exhausting, panorama of our city at the turn of the century. 

As a kid, I cut straight to the porn— the dining-out parts. 

During the twentieth century’s opening decade, M oscow’s restaurant 


J970s: The Last Days of the Czars 

scene approached a kind of Slavophilic ideal. Unlike the then-capital 
St. Petersburg— regarded as pompous, bureaucratic, and quintessen- 
tially foreign — Moscow worked hard to live up to its moniker “bread- 
and-salty” (hospitable) — a merchant city at heart, uncorrupted by the 
phony veneer of European manners and foods. In St. Petersburg you 
dressed up to nibble tiny portions of foie gras and oysters at a French 
restaurant. In Moscow you gorged, unabashedly, obliviously, orgiasti- 
cally at a traktir, a vernacular Russian tavern. Originally of working-class 
origins, Moscow’s best traktirs in Giliarovsky’s days welcomed everyone: 
posh nobles and meek provincial landowners, loud-voiced actors from 
Moscow Art Theater, and merchants clinching the million-ruble deals 
that fueled this whole Slavophilic restaurant boom. You’d never see 
such a social cocktail in cold, classist St. Petersburg. 

Stomach growling, I stayed up nights devouring Giliarovsky. From 
him I learned that the airiest blini were served at Egorov’s traktir, baked 
in a special stove that stood in the middle of the dining room. That at 
Fopashov traktir, run by a bearded, gruff Old Believer, the city’s plump- 
est pelmeni — dumplings filled with meat, fish, or fruit in a bubbly rose 
champagne sauce — were lapped up with folkloric wooden spoons by Si- 
berian gold-mining merchants. That grand dukes from St. Petersburg 
endured the four-hundred-mile train journey southeast just to eat at 
Testov, Moscow’s most celebrated traktir. Testov was famed for its suck- 
ling pigs that the owner reared at his dacha (“like his own children,” 
except for the restraints around their trotters to prevent them from re- 
sisting being force-fed for plumpness); its three-hundred-pound stur- 
geons and sterlets transported live from the Volga; and Guriev kasha, 
a fanciful baked semolina sweet layered with candied nuts and slightly 
burnt cream skins, served in individual skillets. 

And kulebiaka. The most obscenely decadent kulebiaka in town. 

Offered under the special name of Baidakov’s Pie (nobody really 
knew who this Baidakov was) and ordered days in advance, Testov’s 
golden-cased tour de force was the creation of its 350-pound chef 
named Fyonechka. Among other things, Fyonechka was notorious for 
his habit of drinking shchi (cabbage soup) mixed with frozen champagne 
as a hangover remedy. His kulebiaka was a twelve-tiered skyscraper, 



starting with the ground floor of burbot liver and topped with layers of 
fish, meat, game, mushrooms, and rice, all wrapped in dough, up, up, up 
to a penthouse of calf’s brains in brown butter. 

★ ★ ★ 

And then it all came crashing down. 

In just a bony fistful of years, classical Russian food culture varn- 
ished, almost without a trace. The country’s nationalistic euphoria 
on entering World War I in 1914 collapsed under nonstop disasters 
presided over by the “last of the Romanovs”: clueless, autocratic czar 
Nicholas II and Alexandra, his reactionary, hysterical German-born 
wife. Imperial Russia went lurching toward breakdown and starvation. 
Golden pies, suckling pigs? In 1917 the insurgent Bolsheviks' banners 
demanded simply the most basic of staples —khleb (bread)— along with 
land (beleaguered peasants were 80 percent of Russia’s population) and 
an end to the ruinous war. On the evening of October 25, hours before 
the coup by Lenin and his tiny cadre, ministers of Kerensky’s founder- 
ing provisional government, which replaced the czar after the popular 
revolution of February 1917, dined finely at the Winter Palace: soup, 
artichokes, and fish. A doomed meal all around. 

With rationing already in force, the Bolsheviks quickly introduced 
a harsher system of class-based food allotments. Heavy manual labor- 
ers became the new privileged; Testov’s fancy diners plunged down the 
totem pole. Grigory Zinoviev, the head of local government in Petro- 
grad (ex-St. Petersburg), announced rations for the bourgeoisie thusly: 
“We shall give them one ounce a day so they won’t forget the smell of 
bread.” He added with relish: “But if we must go over to milled straw, 
then we shall put the bourgeoisie on it first of all.” 

The country, engulfed now by civil war, was rushed toward a 
full-blown, and catastrophic, centralized communist model. War Com- 
munism (it was given that temporary-sounding tag after the fact) ran 
from mid-1918 through early 1921, when Lenin abandoned it for a more 
mixed economic approach. But from that time until the Soviet Union’s 
very end, food was to be not just a matter of chronic uncertainty but a 


7 970S: The Last Days of the Czars 

stark tool of political and social control. To use a Russian phrase, knut i 
priantk: whip and gingerbread. 

There was scarce gingerbread at this point. 

Strikes in Petrograd in 1919 protested the taste (or lack thereof) of 
the new Soviet diet. Even revolutionary bigwigs at the city’s Smolny can- 
teen subsisted on vile herring soup and gluey millet. At the Kremlin in 
Moscow, the new seat of government, the situation was so awful that the 
famously ascetic Lenin — Mr. Stale Bread and Weak Tea, who ate mostly 
at home — ordered several investigations into why the Kremlyovka 
(Kremlin canteen) served such inedible stuff. Here’s what the investi- 
gation found: the cooks couldn’t actually cook. Most pre-revolutionary 
chefs, waiters, and other food types had been fired as part of the massive 
reorganization of labor, and the new ones had been hired from other 
professions to avoid using “czarist cadres.” “Iron Felix” Dzerzhinsky, the 
dread founding maestro of Soviet terror, was besieged by requests from 
Kremlin staffers for towels for the Kremlyovka kitchens. Also aprons 
and jackets for cooks. Mrs. Trotsky kept asking for tea strainers. In vain. 

Part of the Kremlyovka’s troubles sprang from another of War Com- 
munism’s policies: having declared itself the sole purveyor and marketer 
of food, and setter of food prices, the Kremlin was not supposed to 
procure from private sources. And yet. The black market that imme- 
diately sprang up became — and remained — a defining and permanent 
fixture of Soviet life. Lenin might have railed against petty speculators 
called meshochniki (bagmen), the private individuals who braved Dzer- 
zhinsky’s Cheka (secret police) roving patrols to bring back foodstuffs 
from the countryside, often for their own starving families. But in fact 
most of the calories consumed in Russia’s cities during this dire period 
were supplied by such illegal operators. In the winter of 1919-20, they 
supplied as much as 75 percent of the food consumed, maybe more. By 
War Communism’s end, an estimated 200,000 bagmen were riding 
the rails in the breadbasket of the Ukraine. 

War Communism showed an especially harsh face to the peasantry. 
An emphatically urban party, the Bolsheviks had little grasp of peas- 
ant realities, despite all the hammer-and-sickle imagery and early nods 
toward land distribution. To combat drastic grain shortages — blamed 



on speculative withholding— Lenin called down a “food dictatorship” 
and a “crusade for bread.” Armed detachments stalked the country- 
side, confiscating “surpluses” to feed the Red Army and the hungry, 
traumatically shrunken cities. This was the hated prodrazverstka (grain 
requisitioning)— a preview of the greater horrors to come under Stalin. 
There was more. To incite Marxist class warfare in villages, the poor- 
est peasants were stirred up against their better-off kind, the so-called 
kulaks (“tight-fisted ones”)— vile bourgeois-like objects of Bolshevik 
venom. “Hang (hang without fail, so the people see) no fewer than one 
hundred known kulaks, rich men, bloodsuckers,” Lenin instructed pro- 
vincial leaders in 1918. Though as Zinoviev later noted: “We are fond of 
describing any peasant who has enough to eat as a kulak.” 

And so was launched a swelling, unevenly matched war by the radi- 
calized, industrialized cities — the minority — to bring to heel the con- 
servative, religion-saturated, profoundly mistrustful countryside— the 
vast majority. Who were never truly fervent Bolshevik supporters. 

Agriculture under War Communism plummeted. By 1920, grain 
output was down to only 60 percent of pre-World War I levels, when 
Russia had been a significant exporter. 

It goes without saying that the concept of cuisine went out the win- 
dow in those ferocious times. The very notion of pleasure from flavor- 
some food was reviled as capitalist degeneracy. Mayakovsky, brazen 
poet of the revolution, sicced his jeering muses on gourmet fancies: 

Eat your pineapples, gobble your grouse 

Tour last day is coming, you bourgeois louse! 

Food was fuel for survival and socialist labor. Food was a 
weapon of class struggle. Anything that smacked of Testov’s brand of 
lipsmacking— kulebiaka would be a buttery bull’s-eye— constituted a 
reactionary attack on the world being born. Some czarist traktirs and 
restaurants were shuttered and looted; others were nationalized and 
turned into public canteens with the utopian goal of serving new kinds 
of foods, supposedly futuristic and rational, to the newly Soviet masses. 

Not until two decades later, following the abolition of yet another 


J9JOS: The Last Days of the Czars 

wave of rationing policies, did the state support efforts to seek out old 
professional chefs and revive some traditional recipes, at least in print. 
It was part of a whole new Soviet Cuisine project courtesy of Stalin’s 
food-supply commissariat. A few czarist dishes came peeping back, 
tricked out in Soviet duds, right then and later. 

But the bona fide, layered fish kulebiaka, darling of yore, resurfaced 
only in Putin’s Moscow, at resurrect-the-Romanovs restaurants, or- 
dered up by oligarch types clinching oil deals. 

★ ★ ★ 

Mom and I have our own later history with kulebiaka. 

After we emigrated to America in 1974, refugees arriving in Phila- 
delphia with two tiny suitcases, Mom supported us by cleaning houses. 
Miraculously, she managed to save up for our first frugal visit to Paris 
two years later. The French capital I found haughty and underwhelm- 
ing. Mom, on the other hand, was euphoric. Pier decades-long Soviet 
dream had finally been realized, never mind the stale saucissons we fed 
on all week. On our last night she decided to splurge at a candlelit 
smoky bistro in the sixteenth arrondissement. And there it was! The 
most expensive dish on the menu — our fish-filled kulebiaka! That is, 
in its French incarnation, coulibiac — one of the handful of a la russe 
dishes to have made the journey from Russia in the mainly one-way 
nineteenth-century gastronomic traffic. Nervously counting our hand- 
ful of tourist francs, we bit into this coulibiac with tongue-tingled an- 
ticipation and were instantly rewarded by the buttery puff pastry that 
shattered so pleasingly at the touch of the fork. The lovely coral pink 
of the salmon seemed to wink at us— scornfully?--from the opened 
pie on the plate as if to suggest France’s gastronomic noblesse oblige. 
The Gauls, they just couldn’t help being smug. We took a second bite, 
expecting total surrender. But something— wait, wait— was wrong. 
Messieurs^ dames! Where did you hide the dusky wild mushrooms, the 
dilled rice, the hlinchinki to soak up all those Slavic juices? What of the 
magically controlled blend of tastes? This French coulibiac, we con- 
cluded, was a fraud: saumon en croute masquerading as Russian. We 



paid the bill to the sneering gar^on, unexpectedly wistful for our kule- 
biaka from Praga and the still-unfulfilled yearnings it had inspired. 

It was back in Philadelphia that we finally found that elusive holy grail of 
Russian high cuisine— courtesy of some White Russian emigres who’d 
escaped just before and after the revolution. These gray-haired folk had 
arrived via Paris or Berlin or Shanghai with noble Russian names out of 
novels — Golitsyn, Volkonsky. They grew black currants and Nabokov- 
ian lilacs in the gardens of their small houses outside Philadelphia or 
New York. Occasionally they’d attend balls— balls! To them, we escap- 
ees from the barbaric Imperium were a mild curiosity. Their conversa- 
tions with Mother went something like this: 

“Where did you weather the revolution?” 

Mom: “I was born in 1934.” 

“What do the Soviets think about Kerensky?” 

Mom: “They don’t think of him much.” 

“I heard there ’ve been major changes in Russia since 1917.” 

Mom: “Er . . . that’s right.” 

“Is it really true that at the races you now can’t bet on more than 
one horse?” 

The Russian we spoke seemed from a different planet. Here we 
were, with our self-consciously ironic appropriations of Sovietese, our 
twenty-seven shades of sarcasm injected into one simple word — comrade, 
say, or homeland. Talking to people who addressed us as dushechka (little 
soul) in pure, lilting, innocent Russian. Despite this cultural abyss, we 
cherished every moment at these people’s generous tables. Boy, they 
could cook! Suckling pig stuffed with kasha, wickedly rich Easter molds 
redolent of vanilla, the Chekhovian blini plumper than “the shoulder of 
a merchant’s daughter”— we tasted it all. Mom approached our dining 
sessions with an ethnographer’s zeal and a notebook. Examining the 
recipes later, she’d practically weep. 

“Flour, milk, yeast, we had all those in Moscow. Why, why, couldn’t 
I ever make blini like this?” 

One day, an old lady, a Smolianka — a graduate of the prestigious St. 


79 !Os: The Last Days of the Czars 

Petersburg Smolny Institute for Young Women, where culinary skills 
were de rigueur — invited us over for kulebiaka. This was the moment 
we had been waiting for. As the pie baked, we chatted with an old count- 
ess with a name too grand to even pronounce. The countess recounted 
how hard she cried, back in 1914, when she received a diamond necklace 
as a birthday gift from her father. Apparently she had really wanted a 
puppy. The kulebiaka arrived. Our hearts raced. Here it was, the true, 
genuine kulebiaka— “naked, shameless, a temptation.” The mushrooms, 
the blinchiki, even viziga, that gelatinous dried sturgeon spine our hostess 
had unearthed somewhere in deepest Chinatown — all were drenched 
in splashes of butter inside a beautifully decorated yeast pastry mantle. 

As I ate, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina flashed into my mind. Because after 
some three hundred pages describing Vronsky’s passion for Anna, his 
endless pursuits, all her tortured denials, the consummation of their 
affair is allotted only one sentence. And so it was for us and the con- 
summate kulebiaka. We ate; the pie was more than delicious; we were 
satisfied. Happily, nobody leapt under a train. And yet . . . assessing the 
kulebiaka and studying our hostess’s recipe later at home, Mom started 
scribbling over it furiously, crossing things out, shaking her head, mut- 
tering, “Nr nashe ” — not ours. I’m pretty sure I know what she meant. 
Dried sturgeon spine? Who were we kidding? Whether we liked it or 
not, we were Soviets, not Russians. In place of the sturgeon, defrosted 
cod would do just fine. 

It took us another three decades to develop a kulebiaka recipe to 
call our own — one that hinted at Russia’s turn-of-the-century excess, 
with a soupc^on of that snooty French elegance, while staying true to 
our frugal past. 

But that recipe just wouldn’t do for our 1910s feast tonight. 

We needed to conjure up the real deal, the classic. 

★ ★ ★ 

My mother is finally rolling out her kulebiaka dough, maneuvering in- 
tently on a dime-size oasis of kitchen counter. I inhale the sweetish 
tang of fermented yeast once again and try to plumb my unconscious 



for some collective historical taste memory. No dice. There’s no yeast 
in my DNA. No heirloom pie recipes passed down by generations 
of women in the yellowing pages of family notebooks, scribbled in 
pre-revolutionary Russian orthography. My two grandmothers were 
emancipated New Soviet women, meaning they barely baked, wouldn’t 
be caught dead cooking “czarist.” Curious and passionate about food 
all her life, Mom herself only became serious about baking after we 
emigrated. In the USSR she relied on a dough called na skoruyu ruku 
(“flick of a hand”), a version involving little kneading and no rising. 
It was a recipe she’d had to teach her mother. My paternal babushka, 
Alla, simply wasn’t interested. She was a war widow and Soviet career 
woman whose idea of dinner was a box of frozen dumplings. “Why 
should I hake,” she told Mother indignantly, “when I can be reading a 
book?” “What, a detektiv” Mom snorted. It was a pointed snort. Rus- 
sia’s top spy thriller writer, the Soviet version of John le Carre, was 
Grandma’s secret lover. 

Peering into the kitchen, I prod Mom for any scraps of pre- 
revolutionary-style baking memories she might retain. She pauses, then 
nods. “Da, listen!” There were these old ladies when she was a child. 
They were strikingly different from the usual bloblike proletarian ba- 
bushkas. “I remember their hair,” says Mom, almost dreamily. “Aristo- 
cratically simple. And the resentment and resignation on their ghostly 
faces. Something so sad and tragic. Perhaps they had grown up in man- 
sions with servants. Now they were ending their days as kitchen slaves 
for their own Stalin-loving families.” 

My mom talks like that. 

“And their food?” I keep prodding. She ponders again. “Their blini, 
their pirozhki (filled pastries), their pirogs . . . somehow they seemed 
airier, fluffier . . .” She shrugs. More she can’t really articulate. Flour, 
yeast, butter. Much like their counterparts who had fled Bolshevik Rus- 
sia, Mom’s Moscow old ladies possessed the magic of yeast. And that 
magic was lost to us. 

And that was the rub of tonight’s project. Of the flavor of the lay- 
ered Silver Age kulebiaka we had at least an inkling. But the botvinya 


7970S: The Last Days of the Czars 

and the Guriev kasha dessert, my responsibilities— they were total co- 
nundrums, Neither I nor Mom had a clue how they were meant to taste. 

There was a further problem: the stress and time required to pre- 
pare a czarist table extravaganza. 

Over an entire day and most of the night preceding our guests’ ar- 
rival, I sweated— and sweated— over my share of the meal. Have you 
ever tried making Guriev kasha during one of the worst New York heat 
waves in memory? 

Thank you, Count Dmitry Guriev, you gourmandizing early- 
nineteenth-century Russian minister of finance, for the labor-intensive 
dessert bearing your name. Though actually by most accounts it was a 
serf chef named Zakhar Kuzmin who first concocted this particular 
kasha (kasha being the Russian word for almost any grain preparation 
both dry and porridgy). Guriev tasted the sweet at somebody’s palace, 
summoned Kuzmin to the table, and gave him a kiss. Then he bought 
said serf-chef and his family. 

Here is how Kuzmin’s infernal inspiration is realized. Make a sweet- 
ened farina-like semolina kasha, called manna kasha in Russian. Then 
in a pan or skillet layer this manna with homemade candied nuts, and 
berries, and with plenty of penki, the rich, faintly burnished skins that 
form on cream when it’s baked. Getting a hint of the labor required? 
For one panful of kasha, you need at least fifteen penki. 

So for hour after hour I opened and closed the door of a 450-degree 
oven to skim off the cream skins. By two a.m. my kitchen throbbed like 
a furnace. Chained to the oven door, drenched in sweat, I was ready to 
assault palaces, smash Faberge eggs. I cursed the Romanovs! I cheered 
the Russian Revolution! 

“Send your maid to the cellar.” That charming instruction kicked 
off many of the recipes in the best surviving (and Rabelaisian) source 
of pre-revolutionary Russian recipes, A Gift to Young Housewives by Elena 
Molokhovets. How my heart went out to that suffering maid! Serf- 
dom might have been abolished in Russia in 1861, but under the Ro- 
manovs the peasants— and, later, the industrial workers— continued to 
live like subhumans. Haute bourgeois housewives gorged on amber fish 



broths, rosy hams, and live sterlets, while their domestics had to make 
do with tyuria (a porridgy soup made with stale bread and water), kvass, 
and bowlfuls of buckwheat groats. Yes, the revolution was necessary. 
But why, I pondered in my furnace kitchen, why did things have to 
go so terribly wrong? Woozy from the heat, I brooded on alternative 

Suppose Kerensky’s provisional government had managed to stay 
in power? 

Or suppose instead of Stalin, Trotsky had taken over from Lenin? 

Or suppose — 

Suddenly I realized I’d forgotten to skim off new penki. I wrenched 
open the oven. The cream had transformed into cascades of white sput- 
tering lava covering every inside inch with scorched white goo. I’d need 
a whole cadre of serfs to clean it all off. I screamed in despair. 

Somehow, at last, at five a.m., I was done. A version of Guriev kasha, 
no doubt ersatz, sat cooling in my fridge under a layer of foil. Falling 
asleep, I recalled how at the storming of the Winter Palace thirsty, vio- 
lent mobs ransacked the Romanovs’ wine cellar, reportedly the largest 
and the best-stocked in the world. 1 congratulated them across the cen- 
tury, from the bottom of my heart. 

Unlike me, my septuagenarian mom actually relishes late-night kitchen 
heroics. And her political thinking is much clearer than mine. Yes, she 
loathes the Romanovs. But she despises the Bolsheviks even more. Plus 
she had no reason for pondering alternative histories; she was sailing 
along smoothly with her kulebiaka project. 

Her dough, loaded with butter and sour cream, had risen beauti- 
fully. The fish, the dilled rice, the dusky wild mushrooms, the thin 
blinchinki for the filling layers, had all come out juicy and tasty. Only 
now, two hours before the party, right before constructing the pie, does 
Mom suddenly experience distress. 

“Anyut, tell me,” she says. “What’s the point of the blinchiki> Filling 
dough with more dough!” 


7970S.- The Last Days of the Czars 

I blink blearily. Ah, the mysteries of the czarist stomach. "Maybe 
excess is the point?” I suggest meekly. 

Mom shrugs. She goes ahead and arranges the filling and its anti- 
mush blinchiki into a majestic bulk. Not quite a Testov-style skyscraper, 
but a fine structure indeed. We decorate the pie together with fanciful 
cut-out designs before popping it into the oven. I’m proud of Mom. As 
we fan ourselves, our hearts race in anticipation, much like they did for 
our encounter decades ago with that true kulebiaka chez White Rus- 
sian emigres. 

But the botvinya still hangs over me like a sword of doom. 

A huge summer hit at Giliarovsky’s Moscow traktirs, this chilled 
kvass and fish potage— a weird hybrid of soup, beverage, fish dish, and 
salad— confounded most foreigners who encountered it. “Horrible me- 
lange! Chaos of indigestion!” pronounced All the Tear Round, Charles 
Dickens’s Victorian periodical. Me, I’m a foreigner to botvinya myself. 
On the evening’s table I set out a soup tureen filled with my home- 
made kvass and cooked greens (botva means vegetable tops), spiked with 
a horseradish sauce. Beside it, serving bowls of diced cucumbers, scal- 
lions, and dill. In the middle: a festive platter with poached salmon and 
shrimp (my stand-in for Slavic crayfish tails). You eat the botvinya by 
mixing all the elements in your soup bowl— to which you add, please, 
ice. A Gift to Young Housewives also recommends a splash of chilled cham- 
pagne. Ah yes, booze! To drown out the promised “chaos of indiges- 
tion,” I’ll pour my horseradish vodka. 

“Fish and kvass?” says my mother. “Foo.” (Russian for eek.) 

“Aga (Yeah),” I agree. 

“Foo,” she insists. “’Cause you know how I hate poached salmon.” 

Mom harbors a competitive streak in the kitchen. I get the feeling 
she secretly wants my botvinya to fail. 

★ ★ ★ 

“You’ve made what? A real botvinya? Homemade kvass?” 

Our first guests, Sasha and Ira Genis, eyeball Mom’s table, in- 



credulous. Mom hands them the welcome kalach, a traditional bread 
shaped like a purse. Their eyes grow wider. 

Sasha (the diminutive of Alexander) is a freewheeling emigre essay- 
ist and cultural critic, something of a legend in Russia, where his radio 
broadcasts are adored by millions. He’s a serious gourmet, too. Dinners 
at the Genis home in New Jersey feature mushrooms gathered under a 
Siberian moon and smoked lamprey eels smuggled from Latvia. 

Mom’s face blossoms with pride as Sasha confesses that, in his whole 
life, he’s never tasted botvinya and tiered kulebiaka. 

“And Guriev kasha?” he cries. “Does it really exist outside literature?” 

Suddenly all the guests are here, crowding Mom’s tiny foyer, kiss- 
ing hello three times, handing over bouquets and bottles. At table, we 
are: a documentary filmmaker, Andrei, and his wife, Toma, sexy in her 
slinky, low-cut cocktail frock; my South African -born partner, Barry; 
and “distinguished American guests”— a couple from Brooklyn, both in 
the culture business. 

“A proper fin-de-siecle traktir setting,” Mom expounds to the Brook- 
lynites in her museum-docent tones, “should be a blend of art nouveau 
and Russian folkloric.” The Brooklynites nod respectfully. 

Zakuski devoured, first vodkas downed, everyone addresses my bot- 
vinya. Mom barely touches hers, wrinkling her nose at the salmon. I 
both like the botvinya and don’t: it tastes utterly alien. 

And then, gasp, Mom carries out her kulebiaka. A choral whoop 
goes up. She cuts into the layers, releasing fishy, mushroomy steam into 
the candlelight. Slowly, bite by bite, I savor the voluptuousness of the 
dough-upon-dough Slavic excess. The fluffy layers put me in the mind 
of luxurious Oblomovian sloth, of collapsing into a huge feather bed. I 
think I finally get the point of the blinchiki. They’re like marbling in a 

Sasha Genis raises his vodka glass to Larisa. “This is the most patri- 
otic meal of my life!” he enthuses. “Putin should be taking note!” 

His toast puzzles me. More, it perplexes, touching on what I’ve 
been turning over in my mind. Patriotic about what? The hated czarist 
regime? The repressive State we fled decades ago? Or some collective 


J9JOS.- The Last Days of the Czars 

ur-memory of a cuisine never rightfully ours? Back in the USSR, pa- 
triotism was a dirty word in our dissident circles. And for that matter, 
what of our supposed Russianness? At table we’re a typical pan-Soviet 
emigre crew. Andrei is a Ukrainian Jew; his wife, Toma, is Russian; 
both are from Kiev. Although the Genises hail from Riga, they’re not 
Latvian. Mom, also Jewish, was born in Odessa and lived in Murmansk 
and Leningrad before moving to Moscow. I’m the only born Muscovite 
among us. 

My ruminations on patriotism are drowned out by more toasts. 
Mom’s air conditioner chugs and strains; the toasts grow more ironic, 
more Soviet, more “ours” . . . 

What was going on in the Russia we’re bidding adieu to here, in the 
year 1910? our Brooklyn culturati are asking. “Well, Chekhov has been 
dead for six years,” answers Sasha. “Tolstoy has just died at a remote 
railway station.” 

“His strange death a major cultural milestone,” Mother chimes in, 
not to be outdone. “It caused a massive media frenzy.” 

In 1913, I add myself, revisiting my patriotism theme, the tone-deaf 
Czar Nicholas II created a minor public relations disaster by serving a 
Frenchified menu at the banquet celebrating three hundred years of the 
Romanov dynasty. Potage a fortwe— definitely not patriotic. 

Cautiously I dig my spoon now into my Guriev kasha. Rich yet light, 
with a texture somewhere between pudding and torte, it tastes like a ce- 
lestial version of my dreaded kindergarten breakfast farina. The guests 
giggle at my three a.m. penki fiasco. 

And then it’s suddenly time for au revoirs. To Mom, to me, to czar- 
ist excess. The Genises head off down the hallway to the elevator. Sud- 
denly Sasha comes running back. 

“Devochki (Girls)! The kulebiaka, I just have to say again: wow! In- 
serting blini into yeast pastry!? Unreal.” 

Maybe I do understand Sasha’s brand of patriotism and nos- 
talgia. It’s patriotism for that nineteenth-century Russian idea of 
Culture with a capital C — an idea, and an ideal, that we ex-Soviets 
from Ukraine and Moscow and Latvia have never abandoned. They 



still stir us, those memories of savoring orgiastic descriptions of ed- 
ibles in Chekhov and Gogol while dunking stale socialist pies into 
penitentiary-style soups. 

I want to ask Mom what she thinks of all this, but she looks too 
exhausted. And sweaty. I have a feeling she’s welcoming the seven and a 
half decades of frugal Soviet eating ahead of us. 



1920s: LENIN'S CAKE 

When I was four, I developed a troubling fascination with Lenin. 
With Dedushka (Grandpa) Lenin, as the leader of the world proletariat 
was known to us Soviet kids. 

For a grandfather, Vladimir Ilyich was distressingly odd. I puz- 
zled over how he could be immortal — “more alive than all the liv- 
ing,” per Mayakovsky — and yet be so clearly, blatantly dead. Puzzling 
too how Lenin was simultaneously the curly-haired baby Volodya on 
the star-shaped Octobrists badge of first-graders and yet a very old 
dedushka with a tufty triangular beard, unpleasantly bald under his in- 
escapable flat cap. Everyone raved about how honest he was, how smart 
and courageous; how his revolution saved Russia from backwardness. 
But doubts nagged at me. That cheesy proletarian cap (who ever wore 
such a thing?) and that perpetual sly squint, just a bit smirky — they 
made him not entirely trustworthy. And how come alkogoliks sometimes 
kicked his stony statues, mumbling “Fucking syphilitic”? And what 
awesome revolutionary, even if bald, would marry Nadezhda Konstan- 
tinovna Krupskaya, who resembled a misshapen tea cozy? 

I decided the only way to resolve these mysteries would be to 
visit the mausoleum in Red Square where Vladimir Ilyich — dead? 
alive? — resided. But a visit to the mavzoley wasn’t so easy. True, it stood 
just a short distance from my grandma Alla’s communal apartment, 
where I was born. All I had to do was walk out of her house, then follow 



the block-long facade of GUM department store into Red Square. But 
here you encountered the mausoleum line. It was longer than the lines 
at GUM for Polish pantyhose and Rumanian ski boots combined. No 
matter how early I'd trudge over, thousands would already be there in 
a mile-long orderly file. Returning in the afternoon, I’d see the same 
people, still waiting, the bright enthusiasm of a socialist morning now 
faded from their glum, tired faces. It was then I began to understand 
that rituals required sacrifice. 

But the foremost obstacle between me and Lenin’s mavzoley was my 
mother’s dogged anti-Soviet hostility. When I started kindergarten, 
where instructive mausoleum field trips were frequent, she forbade me 
from going, warning the teachers that I threw up on buses (true enough). 
On class trip days the kindergarten became eerily peaceful — just me 
and cleaners and cooks. I had instructions to sit in the Lenin Corner 
and draw the mausoleum and its bald occupant. The red and black 
stone ziggurat of the low little building— that I could reproduce per- 
fectly. But the mysterious interior? All I came up with was a big table 
around which my kindergarten mates and Dedushka Lenin were having 
tea. On the table I always drew apple cake. All Soviet children knew of 
Lenin’s fondness for apple cake. Even more, we knew how child-Lenin 
once secretly gobbled up the apple peels after his mom baked such a 
cake. But the future leader owned up to his crime. He bravely confessed 
it to his mother! This was the moral. We all had to grow up honest like 

Actually, the person who knew all about Lenin and the mausoleum was 
my father, Sergei. 

In the seventies, Dad worked at an inconspicuous two-story 
gray mansion near the Moscow Zoo on the Garden Ring, discreetly 
accessed through a courtyard. Most passersby had no clue that this 
was the Ministry of Health’s Mausoleum Research Lab, where the best 
and brightest of science— some 150 people in many departments— 
toiled to keep Lenin looking his immortal best under the bulletproof 


J920s: Lenin's Cake 

glass of his sarcophagus. The hand-washing and sterilizing of his 
outfit, of his underwear, shirts, vests, and polka-dot ties, were strictly 
supervised at the lab, too, by a certain zaftig comrade named Anna 
Mikhailovna. A physics of color guy. Dad manned the kolorimeter, 
monitoring changes in the hue of Lenin’s dead skin. (In his seven 
years there, there weren’t any.) 

Dad and those of his rank of course were never allowed near the 
“object” itself. That required top security clearance. Mere mortal re- 
searchers practiced on “biological structures” — cadavers embalmed 
in the exact same glycerin and potassium acetate solution as the star 
of the show. There were twenty-six practice stiffs in all, each with its 
own name. Dad’s was “Kostya,” a criminal dead from asphyxiation and 
unclaimed by relatives. On Dad’s first day his new colleagues watched 
cackling as he nearly fainted at a display of severed heads. It was a pretty 
gruesome, over-the-top place, the lab. Embalmed limbs and fetuses 
bobbed in the basement bathtubs. But my father quickly got used to 
the work. In fact, he came to quite like it, he says. Because it was classi- 
fied as dangerous to employees’ health, the job brought delightful perks. 
Shortened work hours, a free daily carton of milk, and, best of all, a 
generous monthly allotment of purest, highest-grade spirt (ethyl alco- 
hol). In his reports, Dad noted the alcohol’s use for cleaning “optical 
spheres,” but he often came home with the robust smell of mausoleum 
spirits on his breath. Behold Soviet science. 

★ ★ ★ 

I was sufficiently older and smarter by the time of my father’s necro- 
employment that Lenin no longer bewitched and bothered me. But cer- 
tain curiosities linger even today, such as: 

What did Lenin and his fellow Bolshevik revolutionaries actu- 
ally eat? 

Mom, on the other hand, has no such curiosity. “Over my dead 
body!” she almost bellows at my suggestion that we reproduce some 
Lenin-esque menus. Although she does chuckle when I mention Dad’s 



pet cadaver. Her own memory of his mausoleum days is just the alcohol 
breath, and she doesn’t find that one amusing. 

Mom has her own notions of how the 1920s should be dealt with 
gastronomically. Rightly, she characterizes the decade as a fractured 
chaos of contradictory utopian experiments and concessionary schemes 
leading nowhere — all forgotten once Stalin’s leaden hand fell in the 

“For us today,” she propounds, ever the culture vulture, “the Soviet 
twenties are really remembered for the writers. And the avant-garde 
art— the Maleviches, Rodchenkos, and Tatlins on museum walls all 
over the world!” 

So besides digging into family history for her grandmother’s gefilte 
fish recipe, Mom assigns herself the task of leafing through art albums 
to troll for food references. 

And I’m left to tackle Lenin. Dedushka Lenin. 

★ ★ ★ 

From my kindergarten nanny, Zoya Petrovna, I knew that her dear 
Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov was born in 1870, some 430 miles from the 
Kremlin, in the provincial Volga town of Simbirsk. Volodya (the dimin- 
utive of Vladimir) was the smart, boisterous third child of six in a large 
and happy family. At the cozy Ulyanov homestead there were musical 
evenings, tea in the garden gazebo, gooseberry bushes for the kids to 
raid. Mom Maria— a teacher of Germanic and Jewish descent — cooked 
stolid Russo-Germanic fare. The family enjoyed Arme Ritter (“poor 
knights,” a German French toast) and lots of buterbrodi, the open-faced 
sandwiches that would become staples of our Soviet diets. About the 
proverbial apple cake reliable scholarly sources are silent, alas. 

The Ulyanovs’ idyll ended when Volodya was sixteen. His father 
died from a brain hemorrhage. The next year his older brother Alexan- 
der was arrested and hanged for conspiring to assassinate the czar. Most 
historians see Alexander’s fate as the trauma that radicalized the future 
Bolshevik leader. They also acknowledge the influence of Alexander’s 


1920$: Lenin's Cake 

favorite book, Chto delat’? or What Is to Be Done? In 1902 Vladimir Ilyich 
borrowed the title for a revolutionary pamphlet he signed using for the 
first time his adopted name: Lenin. 

The original was penned in 1863 by an imprisoned socialist, Niko- 
lai Chernyshevsky, and is widely acknowledged as some of the most 
god-awful writing ever spawned under the northern sun. A didactic 
political tract shoehorned into a breathtakingly inept novel, it gasses on 
and on about free love and a communal utopia populated by a “new kind” 
of people. Writers as disparate as Nabokov and Dostoyevsky mocked it. 
And yet, for future Bolsheviks (Mensheviks too) the novel wasn’t just 
inspirational gospel; it was a practical guide to actually reaching utopia. 

Vera Pavlovna, the book’s free-loving do-goodnik heroine, in- 
spired Russian feminists to open labor cooperatives for poor women. 
And Rakhmetov, its Superman of a revolutionary, became the model 
for angry young men aspiring to transform Russia. Half Slavic secu- 
lar saint, half Enlightenment rationalist, this Rakhmetov was ascetic, 
ruthlessly pragmatic, and disciplined, yet possessed of a Russian bleed- 
ing heart for the underprivileged. He abstained from booze and sex and 
grabbed his forty winks on a bed of nails to toughen up — a detail glee- 
fully recalled by any former Soviet teen who slogged through a ninth- 
grade composition on What Is to Be Done? 

And to eat? 

For Rakhmetov, an oddball "boxer’s” diet sufficed: raw meat, for 
strength; some plain black bread; and whichever humble fare was avail- 
able (apples, fine; fancy apricots, nyet). 

As I reread Chto delat’? now, this stern menu for heroes strikes me 
as very significant. Rooted in mid-nineteenth-century Russian liberal 
thought, culinary austerity — not to say nihilism — was indeed the hall- 
mark of the era’s flesh-and-blood radicals and Utopians. The father of 
Russian populism, Alexander Herzen — Chernyshevsky ’s idol, admira- 
tion alas unreturned—had condemned the European petite bourgeoi- 
sie’s desire for “a piece of chicken in the cabbage soup of every little 
man.” Tolstoy preached vegetarianism. Petr Kropotkin, the anarchist 
prince, avowed “tea and bread, some milk ... a thin slice of meat cooked 



over a spirit lamp.” And when Vera Zasulich, a venerated Marxist fire- 
brand, was hungry, she snipped off pieces of wretchedly done meat with 

True to the model, Lenin qua Lenin ate humbly. Conveniently, his 
wife, Krupskaya, was a lousy cook. On the famous “sealed" train headed 
for Petrograd’s Finland Station in 1917, Lenin made do with a sandwich 
and a stale bread roll. During their previous decade of European exile, 
the Bolshevik first couple, though not poor, dined like grad students 
on bread, soups, and potatoes at cheap boardinghouses and proletarian 
neighborhood joints. When she did cook, Krupskaya burned her stews 
(“roasts,” Lenin called them ironically). She even made “roast” out of 
oatmeal, though she could prepare eggs a dozen ways. But she needn’t 
have bothered: Lenin, she reported later, “pretty submissively ate ev- 
erything given to him.” Apparently Lenin didn’t even mind horsemeat. 
Occasionally his mother would send parcels of Volga treats— caviar, 
smoked fish — from Simbirsk. But she died in 1916. So there were no 
such treats in 1918 when her son and daughter-in-law moved into the 
Kremlin, by the wall of which I would later brood over the endless line 
for the mausoleum. 

★ ★ ★ 

Ascetic food mores a la Rakhmetov carried over, it might be said, into 
the new Bolshevik state’s approach to collective nutrition. Food equaled 
utilitarian fuel, pure and simple. The new Soviet citizen was to be lib- 
erated from fussy dining and other such distractions from his grand 
modernizing project. 

Novy sovetsky chelovek. The New Soviet Man! 

This communal socialist prototype stood at the very heart of 
Lenin and company’s enterprise. A radically transforming society re- 
quired a radically different membership: productive, selfless, strong, 
unemotional, rational — ready to sacrifice all to the socialist cause. Not 
letting any kind of biological determinism stand in their way, the Bol- 
sheviks held that, with proper finagling, the Russian body and mind 


79 20s: Lenin's Cake 

could be reshaped and rewired. Early visions of such Rakhmetovian 
comrade-molding were agoony hybrid of hyper- rational science, sociol- 
ogy, and utopian thinking. 

“Man,” enthused Trotsky (who’d read What Is to Be Done? with “ec- 
static love”), “will make it his purpose to . . . raise his instincts to the 
heights of consciousness ... to create a higher social biologic tongue 
type, or, if you please, a superman.” 

A prime crucible for the new Soviet identity was byt (everyday life 
and its mores) — to be remade as novy byt (the new lifestyle). A deeply 
Russian concept, this byt business, difficult to translate. Not merely 
everyday life in the Western sense, it traditionally signified the meta- 
physical weight of the daily grind, the existentially depleting cares of 
material living. The Bolsheviks meant to eliminate the problem. In 
Marxian terms, material life determined consciousness. Consequently, 
novy byt — everyday life modernized, socialized, collectivized, ideologized 
— would serve as a critical arena and engine of man’s transformation. 
Indeed, the turbulent twenties marked the beginning of our state’s re- 
lentless intrusion into every aspect of the Soviet daily experience — from 
hygiene to housekeeping, from education to eating, from sleeping to 
sex. Exact ideologies and aesthetics would vary through the decades, 
but not the state’s meddling. 

“Bolshevism has abolished private life,” wrote the cultural critic 
Walter Benjamin after his melancholy 1927 visit to Moscow. 

The abolition started with housing. Right after October 1917, Lenin 
drafted a decree expropriating and partitioning single-family dwell- 
ings. And so were born our unbeloved Soviet kommunalki— communal 
apartments with shared kitchens and bathrooms. Under the Bolshe- 
viks, comforting words such as house and apartment were quickly replaced 
by zhilploshchad’, chilling bureaucratese for “dwelling space.” The offi- 
cial allowance — nine square meters per person, or rather, per statistical 
unit — was assigned by the Housing Committee, an all-powerful insti- 
tution that threw together strangers — often class enemies — into condi- 
tions far more intimate than those of nuclear families in the West. An 
environment engineered for totalitarian social control. 



Such was the domicile near Red Square where I spent the first three 
years of my life. It was. I’m sad to report, not the blissful communal 
utopia envisaged in the hallowed pages of What Is to Be Done > Sadder 
still, by the seventies, the would-be socialist ubermensch had shrunk to 
Homo sovieticus: cynical, disillusioned, wholly fixated on kolbasa, and yes, 
Herzen’s petit bourgeois chicken. 

Naturally, the Bolshevik reframing of byt ensnared the family stove. 
Despite the mammoth challenge of feeding the civil-war-ravaged coun- 
try, the traditional domestic kitchen was branded as ideologically reac- 
tionary, and downright ineffectual. “When each family eats by itself,” 
warned a publication titled Down with the Private Kitchen, “scientifically 
sound nutrition is out of the question.” 

State dining facilities were to be the new hearth — the public caul- 
dron replacing the household pot, in the phrase of one Central Com- 
mittee economist. Such communal catering not only allowed the state 
to manage scarce resources, but also turned eating into a politically 
engaged process. “The stolovaya [public canteen] is the forge,” declared 
the head of the union in charge of public dining, “where Soviet byt and 
society will be . . . created.” Communal cafeterias, agreed Lenin, were 
invaluable “shoots” of communism, living examples of its practice. 

By 1921 thousands of Soviet citizens were dining in public. By all 
accounts these stolovayas were ghastly affairs — scarier even than those 
of my Mature Socialist childhood with their piercing reek of stewed 
cabbage and some Aunt Klava flailing a filthy cleaning rag under my 
nose as I gagged on the three-course set lunch, with its inevitable 
ending of desolate-brown dried fruit compote or a starchy liquid jelly 
called kissel. 

Kissel would have appeared ambrosial back in the twenties. Work- 
ers were fed soup with rotten sauerkraut, unidentifiable meat (horse?), 
gluey millet, and endless vobla , the petrified dried Caspian roach fish. 
And yet . . . thanks to the didactic ambitions of novy byt, many can- 
teens offered reading rooms, chess, and lectures on the merits of 
hand-washing, thorough chewing, and proletarian hygiene. A few 


1920S: Lenin’s Cake 

model stolovayas even had musical accompaniment and fresh flowers on 
white tablecloths. 

Mostly though, the New Soviet slogans and schemes brought rats, 
scurvy, and filth. 

There were rats and scurvy inside the Kremlin as well. 

Following Lenin’s self-abnegating example, the Bolshevik elite over- 
worked and under-ate. At meetings of the Council of People’s Commis- 
sars, comrades fainted from illness and hunger. As the flames of civil 
war guttered, the victorious socialist state came staggering into the cen- 
tury’s third decade “never so exhausted, so worn out,” to quote Lenin. 
An overwhelming roster of crises demanded solution. War Commu- 
nism and its “food dictatorship” had proved catastrophic. Grain pro- 
duction was down; in February of 1921, a drastic cut in food rations in 
Petrograd set off major strikes. At the end of that month, the sailors 
at Kronstadt Fortress — whose guns had helped to launch the October 
Revolution — rose against Bolshevik authoritarianism. The mutiny was 
savagely suppressed, but it reverberated all over the country. In a coun- 
tryside still seething from the violent forced grain requisition, peasants 
revolted in every corner. 

What was to be done? 

Lenin’s pragmatic shock remedy was NEP — the New Economic 
Policy. Beginning in mid'1921, grain requisition was replaced by tax in 
kind. And then the bombshell: small-scale private trade was permitted 
alongside the state’s control of the economy’s “looming heights.” It was 
a radical leap backward from the Party ideal, a desperate tack to nour- 
ish frail socialism through petty capitalism. And it was done even as 
the utopian New Soviet Man program pushed ahead in contradictory, 
competitive parallel. 

Such were the Soviet twenties. 

Despite the policy turnabout, famine struck southeastern Russia in 
late 1921. Five million people were dead before the horrors subsided 
the next year. But between this famine and the one that would follow 
under Stalin, the NEP’s seven years lit up a frenzied, carnal entr’acte, 



a Russian version of Germany’s sulfurous Weimar. Conveniently, the 
nepachi (NEPmen) made a perfect ideological enemy for the ascetic 
Bolsheviks. Instantly— and enduringly— they were demonized as fat, 
homegrown bourgeois bandits, feasting on weakened, virtuous socialist 

And yet for all its bad rap, NEP helped tremendously. A reviving 
peasant economy began feeding the cities; in 1923 practically all Rus- 
sia’s bread was supplied by private sources. Petrograd papers were glee- 
fully reporting oranges — oranges! — to be had around town. 

For a few years the country more or less ate. 

★ ★ ★ 

Images of gluttonous conmen aside, most NEP businesses were no more 
than market stands or carts. This was the era of pop-up soup counters, 
blini stalls, and lemonade hawkers. Also of canteens run out of citizens’ 
homes — especially Jewish homes, according to Russia’s top culinary 
historian, William Pokhlebkin. 

Checking in on Mom and her twenties research, I find her im- 
mersed in reconstructing the menu of one such canteen. It’s in NEP-era 
Odessa as she imagines it, half a decade before she was born. 

The focus of my mother’s imagining is one sprawling room in Odes- 
sa’s smokestack factory neighborhood of Peresyp. Owner? Her maternal 
grandmother, Maria Brokhvis, the best cook in all of Peresyp. To make 
ends meet, Maria offers a public table. And there’s a regular customer, 
dining right now. Barely in his twenties, with dark hair already starting 
to recede but with lively, ironic eyes and dazzling white teeth that make 
him a natural with the ladies. Often he comes here straight from work 
in his suave blue naval uniform. He’s new to Odessa, to his posting in 
the Black Sea naval intelligence. Naum Solomonovich Frumkin is his 
name, and he will be my mother’s father. 

Naum pays lavish attention to Maria Brokhvis’s chopped herring 
and prodigious stuffed chicken. But his eye is really for Liza, the sec- 
ond of Maria and Yankel Brokhvis’s three daughters. There she is in 


J920s: Lenin’s Cake 

the corner, an architectural student running gray, serious eyes over 
her drafting board. Ash blond, petite and athletic, with a finely shaped 
nose, Liza has no time for Naum. He suggests a stroll along the seaside 
cliffs, hints at his feelings. Not interested. 

But how could she ever say nyet to tickets to Odessa’s celebrated, glo- 
rious opera house? Like everyone in town, Liza is crazy for opera, and 
tonight it’s Rigoletto — her favorite. 

Naum proposes right after Rigoletto. And is turned down flat. She 
must finish her studies, Liza informs him indignantly. Enough with his 
“amorous nonsense”! 

So Naum, the crafty intelligence officer, turns his focus to the par- 
ents at whose table he dines. How could Maria and Yankel refuse such a 
fine young New Soviet Man for their pretty komsomolochka (Communist 

How indeed? 

Naum and Liza would be happily married for sixty-one years. Their 
first daughter, Larisa, was born in Odessa in 1934. 

“So you see,” Mom says grandly, “I owe my birth to NEP’s petty 

★ ★ ★ 

The enduring union of my grandparents, on the other hand, owed 
nothing to cooking. Like Lenin’s Krupskaya, Grandma Liza had scant 
passion for her stove; and just like Dedushka Lenin, my grandpa Naum 
submissively ate whatever was on his plate. Occasionally, Liza would 
make fish meatballs from frozen cod, awkwardly invoking her mother 
Maria’s real Jewish gefilte fish. She even made noises to us about some- 
day making the actual stuff—but she never did. In our “anti-Zionist” 
State of the seventies, gefilte fish was an unpatriotic commodity. And 
Babushka Liza was the wife of a longtime Communist intelligence chief. 

But I did encounter real gefilte fish as a kid — in Odessa, in fact, 
the city of my grandparents’ Bolshevik-NEP courtship more than forty 
years before. And it shook my young self, I recall again now, with the 



meaning of our Soviet Jewishness. A Jewishness so drastically redefined 
for my mother’s and my generations by the fervent Bolshevik identity 
policies forged in the 1920s. 

That first taste of gefilte fish in Odessa still torments me, here across 
the years in Queens. 

★ ★ ★ 

“Ah, Odessa, the pearl by the sea,” goes the song. Brought into being by 
Catherine the Great, this rollicking polyglot port on the Black Sea was 
by the nineteenth century one of the fastest-growing cities in Europe; 
its streets remain a riot of French and Italian Empire-style architec- 
ture, full of fantastical flourishes. 

Ah, the Odessa of my young Augusts! The barbaric southern sun 
withered the chestnut trees. The packed tram to Langeron Beach 
smelled thickly of overheated socialist flesh, crayfish bait, and boiled 
eggs, that sine qua non of Soviet beach picnics. We stayed with Tamara, 
Grandma Liza’s deaf, retired older sister, formerly an important local 
judge. Tamara’s daughter, Dina, had a round doll’s face perched on a 
hippo’s body; she worked as an economist. Dina’s son, Senka, had no 
neck and no manners. Dina’s husband, Arnold, the taxi driver, told 
jokes. Loudly — how else? 

“Whatsa difference between Karl Marx and Dina?” he’d roar. 
“Marx was an economist, our Dina’s a senior economist! HA HA HA!!” 

“Stop nauseating already into everyone’s ears!” Dina would bellow 

This was how they talked in Odessa. 

In the morning I awoke — appetiteless — to the tuk-tuk-tuk of Dina’s 
dull chopping knife. Other tuk-tuk-tuks echoed from neighborhood win- 
dows. Odessa women greeted the day by making sininkie , “little blue 
ones,” local jargon for eggplants. Then they prepared stuffed peppers, 
and then sheika , a whole stuffed chicken that took hours to make. Lastly 
they fried — fried everything in sight. Odessa food seemed different 
from our Moscow fare: greasier, fishier, with enough garlic to stun a 
tramful of vampires. But it didn’t seem particularly Jewish to me; after 


7920 s: Lenin's Cake 

all, black bread and salo (pork fatback) was Judge Tamara’s favorite 

Then one day I was dispatched on an errand to the house of some 
distant relations in the ramshackle Jewish neighborhood of Moldo- 
vanka. They lived in an airless room crowded with objects and odors 
and dust of many generations. In the kitchen I was greeted by three 
garrulous women with clunky gold earrings and fire-engine-red hair. 
Two were named Tamara just like my great-aunt; the third was Dora. 
The Tamaras were whacking a monstrous pike against the table — “to 
loosen its skin so it comes off like a stocking.” They paused to smother 
me with noisy, blustery kisses, to ply me with buttermilk, vanilla wafers, 
and honeycake. Then I was instructed to sit and watch “true Jewish 
food” being prepared. 

One Tamara filleted the fish; the other chopped the flesh with a 
flat-bladed knife, complaining about her withered arm. Dora grated on- 
ions, theatrically wiping away tears. Reduced to a coarse oily paste and 
blended with onion, carrots, and bread, the fish was stuffed back into 
the skin and sewn up with thick twine as red as the cooks’ hair. 

It would boil now for three whole hours. Of course I must stay! 
Could I grate horseradish? Did I know the meaning of Shabbos? What, 
I hadn’t heard of the pogroms? More wafers, buttermilk? 

Suffocating from fish fumes, August heat, and the onslaught of en- 
treaties and questions, I mumbled some excuse and ran out, gasping for 
air. I’m sure the ladies were hurt, mystified. For some time afterward, 
with a mixture of curiosity and alienation, I kept wondering about the 
taste of that fish. Then, back in Moscow, it dawned on me: 

On that August day in Odessa, I had run away from my Jewishness. 

I suppose you can’t blame a late-Soviet big-city kid for fleeing the pri- 
mal shock of gefilte fish. As thoroughly gentrified Moscow Jews, we 
didn’t know from seders or matzo balls. Jewishness was simply the 
loaded pyaty punkt (Entry 5) in the Soviet internal passport. Mandated 
in 1932, two years before my mother was born, Entry 5 stated your eth- 
nicity. “Russian, Uzbek, Tatar . . . Jew.” Especially when coupled with an 



undesirable surname, “Jew” was the equivalent of a yellow star in the 
toxic atmosphere of the Brezhnev era. Yes, we were intensely aware of 
our difference as Jews— and ignorant of the religious and cultural back- 
story. Of course we ate pork fat. We loved it. 

The sense that I’d fled my Jewishness in Odessa added painful new 
pressure to the dilemma I would face at sixteen. That’s when each So- 
viet citizen first got an internal passport— the single most crucial iden- 
tity document. As a child of mixed ethnicities— Jewish mom, Russian 
dad— I’d be allowed to select either for Entry 5. This choice-to-come 
weighed like a stone on my nine-year-old soul. Would I pick difficult 
honor and side with the outcasts, thereby dramatically reducing my 
college and job opportunities? Or would I take the easy road of being 
“Russian”? Our emigration rescued me from the dilemma, but the un- 
made choice haunts me to this day. What would I have done? 

★ ★ ★ 

In the early 1920s, hundreds of thousands of Jews made their own 
choice— without anguish they renounced Judaism for Bolshevism. 

One such Jewish convert was Mom’s Grandpa Yankel. He too be- 
came a New Soviet Man, albeit a short, potbellied, docile one. But he 
was a fanatical proletarian nevertheless, a blacksmith who under Stalin 
would become a decorated Hero of Socialist Labor. 

Yankel came to Odessa in the early 1900s from a shtetl in the Pale 
of Settlement— the zone where since 1772 the Russian Empire’s Jews 
had been confined. Though within the Pale, the port of Odessa was 
a thriving melting pot of Greeks, Italians, Ukrainians, and Russians 
as well as Jews. Here Yankel married Maria, began to flourish. And 
then in 1905, he returned from the disastrous Russo-Japanese War to 
something unspeakable. Over four October days, street mobs killed 
and mutilated hundreds in an orgy of anti-Jewish atrocities. Yankel and 
Maria’s firstborn, a baby boy, was murdered in front of them. 

The civil war revived the pogrom of 1905 with anti-Semitic ma- 
rauding by counterrevolutionary Whites. The Red Army commanded 



J920s: Lenin's Cake 

by one Lev Bronstein, better known as Leon Trotsky— vehemently de- 
nounced the violence. Jews flocked to the Reds. Too old for combat 
now, Yankel cheered from the sidelines. 

At first the revolution was good to the Jews. The official birth of the 
US SR in 1922 brought them rights and opportunities unprecedented in 
Russia’s history. Anti-Semitism became a state crime; the Pale was dis- 
mantled. Jews could rise through the bureaucratic and cultural ranks. 
At the start of the decade Jews made up one fifth of the Party’s Central 

But there was a catch. 

Like the Russian Empire before it, the Soviet Union was vast and 
dizzyingly multiethnic. For the Bolsheviks the ethnic or “nationalities” 
issue was fraught. In Marxist terms, nationalism was reactionary. Yet 
not only did ethnic minorities exist, but their oppression under the czar 
made them ripe for the socialist cause. So Lenin, along with the early 
Bolshevik nationalities commissar, Stalin, an ethnic Georgian, con- 
trived a policy of linguistic, cultural, and territorial autonomy for eth- 
nic minorities— in a Soviet format — until international socialism came 
about and nationalities became superfluous. 

The USSR, in the words of the historian Terry Martin, became the 
world’s first affirmative-action empire. 

The catch for Jews? Jewishness was now defined in strictly 
ethno'national terms. The Talmud had no place in building the Radiant 
Future. Reforming and modernizing the so-called “Jewish Street” fell 
to the Yevsektsii, the Jewish sections of the Communist Party. They 
worked savvily. Religious rituals were initially semitolerated— in Sovi- 
etized form. Passover? Well, if you must. Except the Soviet Haggadah 
substituted the words “October Revolution” for “God.” 

In 1920s Odessa, the Soviet supporters Yankel and Maria Brokh- 
vis continued to light candles on Shabbos at their one-room flat in 



Peresyp — but without mentioning God. Maria saw no wrong in gather- 
ing their three daughters around Friday table; she was a proud Jew. As 
the terrible times of the 1921 famine gave way to NEP’s relative bounty, 
she shopped every week at Odessa’s boisterous Privoz market for the 
pike for her famous gefilte fish. It was her second daughter Liza’s favor- 
ite. Maria made challah bread too, and forshmak (chopped herring), and 
bean tzimmes, and crumbly pastries filled with the black prune jam she 
cooked over a primus stove in the courtyard. 

Then one Friday Liza returned from school and sat at the Shabbos 
table staring down at the floor, lips pursed, not touching a thing. She 
was fourteen years old and had just joined the Komsomol, the youth 
division of the Communist Party. After dinner she rose and declared: 
“Mother, your fish is vile religious food. I will never eat it again!” 

And that was it for the Brokhvis family’s Friday gefilte fish. Deep 
in her heart, Maria understood that the New Soviet Generation knew 

I had no idea about any of this. Not the baby dead in the pogrom, not 
Grandma Liza’s ban on Maria’s religious food. Only when Mom and I 
were in her kitchen making our gefilte tribute to Maria did I find out. 

Suddenly I understood why Grandma Liza had looked pensive and 
hesitant whenever she mentioned the dish. She too had run from her 
Jewishness back in Odessa. To her credit, Liza, who was blond and not 
remotely Semitic-looking, became enraged, proclaiming herself Jewish, 
if ever anyone made an anti-Semitic remark. Granddad Naum . . . not 
so much. About his family past Mom knows almost nothing— only that 
his people were shtetl Zionists and that Naum ran away from home as 
a teen, lied about his age to join the Red Army, and never looked back. 

In Jackson Heights, Mom and I are both ecumenical culturalists. 
We light menorahs next to our Christmas trees. We bake Russian 
Easter kulich cake and make ersatz gefilte fish balls for Passover. But 
our gefilte fish this time was different— real Jewish food. We skinned a 
whole pike, hand-minced the flesh, cried grating the onion, sewed the 


7920S.- Lenin's Cake 

fish mince inside the skin, and cooked the whole reconstituted beast for 
three hours. 

The labor was vast, but for me it was a small way of atoning for that 
August day in Odessa. 

★ ★ ★ 

Returning to twenties Bolshevik policies, I reflected again on how 
kitchen labor, particularly the kind at Maria’s politically equivocal NEP 
home canteen, got so little respect in the New Soviet vision. Partly this 
was pragmatic. Freeing women from the household pot was a matter of 
lofty principle, but it was also meant to push them into the larger work- 
force, perhaps even into the army of political agitators. 

I haven’t mentioned her yet, this New Soviet Woman. Admittedly 
a lesser star than the New Soviet Man, she was still decidedly not a 
housewife-cook. She was a liberated proletarka (female proletarian) — 
co-builder of the road to utopia, co-defender of the Communist Inter- 
national, avid reader of Rabotnitsa ( Female Worker), an enthusiastic par- 
ticipant in public life. 

Not for her the domestic toil that ‘‘crushes and degrades women” 
(Lenin’s words). Not for her nursery drudgery, so “barbarously unpro- 
ductive, petty, nerve-racking, stultifying” (Lenin again). No, under so- 
cialism, society would assume all such burdens, eventually eradicating 
the nuclear family. “The real emancipation of women, real communism, 
will begin,” predicted Lenin in 1919, “only where and when an all-out 
struggle begins . . . against . . . petty . . . housekeeping.” 

In one of my favorite Soviet posters, a fierce New Soviet proletarka 
makes like a herald angel under the slogan DOWN WITH KITCHEN 
SLAVERY, rendered in striking avant-garde typography. She’s grinning 
down at an aproned female beleaguered by suds, dishes, laundry, and 
cobwebs. The red-clad proletarka opens wide a door to a light-flooded 
vision of New Soviet byt. Behold a multistoried Futurist edifice housing 
a public canteen, a kitchen-factory, and a nursery school, all crowned 
with a workers’ club. 



The engine for turning such utopian Bolshevik feminist visions into 
reality was the Zhenotdel, literally “womens department.” Founded 
in 1919 as an organ of the Party’s Central Committee, the Zhenotdel 
and its branches fought for— and helped win— crucial reforms in child- 
care, contraception, and marriage. They proselytized, recruited, and 
educated. The first head of Zhenotdel was the charismatic Inessa 
Armand— Paris-born, strikingly glamorous, and by many accounts 
more than simply a “comrade” to Lenin (Krupskaya being strikingly 
not glamorous). Ravaged by overwork, Armand died of cholera in 1920, 
desperately mourned by Vladimir Ilyich. The Zhenotdel mantle then 
passed to Alexandra Kollontai, who was perhaps too charismatic. Kol- 
lontai stands out as one of communism’s most dashing characters. A 
free-love apostle and scandalous practitioner of such (the likely model 
for Garbo’s Ninotchka), Kollontai essentially regarded the nuclear fam- 
ily as an inefficient use of labor, food, and fuel. Wife as homebody-cook 
outraged her. 

“The separation of marriage from kitchen,” preached Kollontai, “is 
a reform no less important than the separation of church and state.” 

★ ★ ★ 

In our family, we had our own Kollontai. 

As Russian families go, mine represented a rich sampling of the 
pre-Soviet national pot. Mom’s people came from the Ukrainian shtetl. 
Dad’s paternal ancestors were Germanic aristocracy who married Cas- 
pian merchants’ daughters. And Dad’s mom, my extravagant and ex- 
travagantly beloved grandmother Alla, was raised by a fiery agitator for 
women’s rights in remote Central Asia. 

When I was little, Alla cooked very infrequently, but when she 
bothered, she produced minor masterpieces. I particularly remem- 
ber the stew my mom inherited from her and cooks to this day. It’s 
an Uzbek stew. A stew of burnished-brown lamb and potatoes enliv- 
ened with an angry dusting of paprika, crushed coriander seeds, and the 
faintly medicinal funk of zira, the Uzbek wild cumin. “From my child- 
hood in Ferghana!” Alla would blurt over the dish, then add, “From a 


7920 s: Lenin's Cake 

person very dear to me . . ” And then the subject was closed. But I knew 
whom she meant. 

Alla Nikolaevna Aksentovich, my grandmother, was born a month be- 
fore the October Revolution in what was still called Turkestan, as czarist 
maps labeled Central Asia. She was an out-of-wedlock baby, orphaned 
early and adopted by her maternal grandmother, Anna Alexeevna, who 
was a Bolshevik feminist in a very rough place to be one. 

Turkestan. Muslim, scorchingly hot, vaster than modern India, much 
of it desert. One of the czars’ last colonial conquests, it was subjugated 
only in the 1860s. A decade later, Anna Alexeevna was born in the fer- 
tile Ferghana valley, Silk Road country from which the Russian Empire 
pumped cotton — as would the Soviet Empire, even more mercilessly. 
The lone photo we have of her, taken years later and elsewhere, shows 
Anna with a sturdy round Slavic face and high cheekbones. Eler father 
was a Ural Cossack, definitely no supporter of Reds. In 1918, when she 
was already forty, a midwife by training, she defied him and joined the 
Communist Party. By 1924, she and little orphaned Alla were in Tash- 
kent, the capital of the new republic of Uzbekistan. The Soviets by then 
had carved up Central Asia into five socialist “national” entities. Anna 
Alexeevna was the new deputy head of the “agitation” department of 
the Central Asian Bureau of the Central Committee. 

There was much agitating to be done. 

The civil war thereabouts had dragged on for extra years, Reds 
pitched against the basmachi (Muslim insurgents). With victory came — as 
elsewhere — staggering challenges. Unlike the Jews, Uzbeks weren’t easy 
converts to the Bolshevik cause. If Russia itself lacked the strict Marxian 
preconditions for communism — namely, advanced capitalism — agrarian 
former Turkestan, with its religious and clan structures, was downright 
feudal. How does one build socialism without a proletariat? The an- 
swer was women. Subjugated by husbands, clergy, and ruling chiefs, the 
women of Central Asia were “the most oppressed of the oppressed and 
the most enslaved of the enslaved,” as Lenin put it. 

So the Soviets switched their rallying cry from class struggle and 



ethno-nationalism to gender. In the “women of the Orient” they found 
their "surrogate proletariat,” their battering ram for social and cultural 

Anna Alexeevna and her fellow Zhenotdel missionaries toiled 
against the kalym (bride fee) and underage marriage, against polygamy 
and female seclusion and segregation. Most dramatically, they battled 
the most literal form of seclusion: the veil. In public Muslim women 
had to wear a paranji, a long, ponderous robe, and a chachvan, a veil. But 
veil sounds so flimsy. Imagine instead a massive, primeval head-to-knee 
shroud of horsehair, with no openings for eyes or mouth. 

“The best revolutionary actions,” Kollontai reportedly once pro- 
nounced, “are pure drama.” Anna Alexeevna and the feminists had 
their coup de theatre: The veil had to go! Few Soviet revolutionary ac- 
tions were more sensational than the hujum (onslaught), the Central 
Asian campaign of unveiling. 

March 8 , 192.7: International Women’s Day. In Uzbek cities veiled 
women go tramping en masse, escorted by police. Bands and native or- 
chestras play. Stages set up on public squares swarm with flowers. There 
are fiery speeches by Zhenotdelki. Poems. Anna is on Tashkent’s main 
stage no doubt when the courageous first ones step up, pull off their 
horsehair mobile prisons, and fling them into bonfires. Thousands are 
inspired to do the same then and there — ten thousand veils are report- 
edly cast off on this day. Unveiled women surge through the streets 
shouting revolutionary slogans. Everyone sings. An astounding moment. 

The backlash was wrathful and immediate. 

Trapped between Lenin and Allah, Moscow and Mecca, the un- 
veiled became social outcasts. Many redonned the paranji. Many others 
were raped and murdered by traditionalist males or their families, their 
mutilated bodies displayed in villages. Zhenotdel activists were threat- 
ened and killed. The firestorm lasted for years. 

By decade’s end the radical theatrics of unveiling were abandoned. 
And all over the country the Zhenotdeli were being dismantled because 
Stalin pronounced the “women’s question” solved. By the midthirties, 
traditional family values were back, with divorce discouraged, abor- 
tions and homosexuality banned. On propaganda posters the Soviet 


7920s: Lenin’s Cake 

Woman had a new look: maternal, full-figured, and “feminine.” And 
for the rest of the USSR’s existence, female comrades were expected to 
carry on their shoulders the infamous “double burden” of wage labor 
and housework. 

★ ★ ★ 

And my great-great-grandmother, the New Soviet feminist? 

In 1931 Anna Alexeevna moved with the teenage Alla to Moscow, 
to follow her boss Isaak Zelensky. A longtime Party stalwart, Zelensky 
was one of the engineers of War Communism’s grain requisitioning; 
he’d been brought back now to the capital from Central Asia to run the 
state’s consumer cooperatives. In 1937, in the midst of the purges, Zel- 
ensky was arrested. A year later he was in the dock with Bolshevik lumi- 
nary Nikolai Bukharin at Stalin’s most notorious show trial. As ex-head 
of cooperative food suppliers, Zelensky breathtakingly “confessed” to 
sabotage, including the spoiling of fifty trainloads of eggs bound for 
Moscow, and the ruining of butter shipments by adding nails and glass. 

He was promptly shot and deleted from Soviet history. 

A year later my great-great-grandmother Anna was arrested as 
Zelensky’s co-conspirator and also deleted from history. From our 
family history, by my grandma Alla, who destroyed all photographs of 
her and stopped mentioning her name. Then one day, after the end of 
World War II, shaking with fear, Alla opened a letter from the gulag, 
from Kolyma in furthest Siberia. With blood-chilling precision, Anna 
Alexeevna had detailed the tortures she’d been subjected to and pleaded 
with the granddaughter she’d adopted and raised to inform Comrade 
Stalin. Like millions of victims, she was convinced the Supreme Leader 
knew nothing of the horrors going on in the prison camps. In my dad’s 
various retellings, Alla immediately burned the letter, flushed it down 
the communal apartment toilet, or ate it. 

Only when drunk, very drunk, and much later, when I was a child, 
would Alla chase her shot glass of vodka with herring and crocodile 
tears and bellow how her grandma Anna Alexeevna had been stripped 
naked in minus-forty-degree weather, beaten in the cellars of the secret 



police’s Lubyanka Prison, kept from sleep for weeks. Then Dad would 
whisper to me the inheritance story. How Anna Alexeevna had been 
released in 1948 at the age of seventy, without a right of return to Mos- 
cow, and had lived in the Siberian city of Magadan. How Alla never vis- 
ited her, not once. How Anna died in 1953, a few months before Stalin. 

So imagine Alla’s surprise when in the mail arrived a death certifi- 
cate; the photo of her grandmother, the only one that remains, taken in 
the gulag; and a money order for a whopping ten thousand rubles, most 
likely Anna Alexeevna’s hoardings from performing black market abor- 
tions in the prison camps. 

Alla and Sergei burned through the inheritance at Moscow’s best 
restaurants. Alla favored the soaring dining room at the Moskva Hotel, 
fancying it for its green malachite columns and famously tender lamb 
riblets— and not, incidentally, because the mustachioed maestro of the 
gulags had liked to celebrate his birthdays there. Dad spent his gulag 
money at Aragvi, the Georgian hot spot on Gorky Street, again not be- 
cause it was a favorite of Stalin’s last chief of secret police, Lavrenty 
Beria. It was just that the iron rings of Soviet life overlapped with all 

With the rest of Anna Alexeevna’s rubles Alla bought a pair of suits 
for Sergei, which he wore for two decades. Also two blankets under 
which I slept when I stayed at Alla’s kommunalka near the mausoleum 
as a kid. They were wondrous blankets, one green, the other blue: 
feather-light and exquisitely silky-soft. 

And there it was: two Chinese silk coverlets, two fancy suits, and a 
dish of Uzbek lamb— the only legacy of a Bolshevik feminist with her 
round, high-cheekboned Slavic face, a fierce crusader for women’s rights 
in the early days who helped in the assault, so dramatic, so ill-conceived, 
against the horsehair veil. And then disappeared. 

★ ★ ★ 

The radical Bolshevik identity policies expanded rights for women, for 
Jews, for even the most obscure ethnic minorities, be they Buryat, Chu- 
vash, or Karakalpak. 


7 920S: Lenin's Cake 

But one category of the disempowered got pushed off into the shad- 
ows of the Radiant Future, treated as an incorrigible menace. They 
happened to be 8 o percent of the population, the ones feeding Russia. 
The peasants. 

The “half-savage, stupid, ponderous people of the Russian villages, 
as Maxim Gorky, village-born himself, called them in 1920. 

“Avaricious, bloated, and bestial,” as Lenin termed them— specifically 
the kulaks, whose proportion was small, but whose name made an easily 
spread ideological tar. 

The NEP offered a temporary lull in the ongoing conflict between 
town and country, but by the end of 1927, a full-blown grain crisis 
erupted once more. 

Cue the cunning Georgian: Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili. 

Stalin, as he was known (his Bolshevik pseudonym derived from 
“steel”), had since 1922 been the Party’s general secretary— a supposedly 
inconsequential post by which he’d maneuvered to be Lenin s successor. 
(Trotsky, his chief rival, thought him slow-witted. It was brilliant, ar- 
rogant Trotsky, however, who was banished in 1929, and who had an ice 
ax driven into his skull in 1940.) 

The 1927 grain crisis arose partly from fears of war — of an attack 
by Britain or some other vile capitalist power — that seized the country 
that year. Panic hoarding flared; peasants shied from selling grain to the 
state at low prices. Raising these prices might well have solved things. 
Instead, crying sabotage, the government turned again to repression 
and violence. On a notorious 1928 trip to Siberia, Stalin personally su- 
pervised coercive requisitioning. As his henchman Molotov later ex- 
plained: “To survive, the State needed grain. Otherwise it would crack 
up. So we pumped away.” 

The NEP market approach was effectively dead. About to replace 
it was Stalin’s final solution to the “peasant problem”— the problem of a 
reliable supply of cheap grain. 

In 1929 the Soviet Union wrenched into Veliky Perelom (The 
Great Turn). As embodied in the first Five-Year Plan, this fantastically, 
fanatically ambitious project aimed to industrialize the country full 
throttle— at the expense of everything else. Long-backward Russia was 



to be transformed into a country of metal, an automobilizing country, 
a tractorized country,” in Stalin’s booming phrases. Rationing reap- 
peared, privileging industrial workers and leaving poorer peasants to 
fend for themselves. 

The first thing to be rationed was bread. “The struggle for bread,” 
growled Stalin, with an echo of Lenin, “is the struggle for socialism.” 
Meaning the Soviet State would brook no more trouble from its 80 

The furies of collectivization and “dekulakization” were unleashed 
now on the countryside. Up to ten million kulaks (that toxically elastic 
term) were thrown off their land, either killed or shipped to prisondabor 
settlements known after 1930 as the gulags, where great numbers died. 
The rest of the peasant households were forced onto kolkhozes (giant 
collective farms overseen by the state), from which the industrial en- 
gine could be dependably fed (or at least that was the idea). Peasants 
resisted this “second serfdom” by force, destroying their livestock on a 
catastrophic scale. By 1931 rnore than twelve million peasants had fled 
to the towns. In 1933 the country’s breadbasket, the fertile Ukraine, 
would plunge into man-made famine— one of the great tragedies of the 
twentieth century. Roads were blocked, peasants forbidden to leave, re- 
ports of the ongoing devastation suppressed. A dead peasant mother’s 
dribble of milk on her emaciated infant’s lips had a name: “the buds of 
the socialist spring.” Out of the estimated seven million who died in the 
Soviet famine, some three million perished in the Ukraine. 

From these horrors Soviet agriculture would never recover. 

★ ★ ★ 

By this point Lenin had been dead for almost ten years. 

Dead — but not buried. 

Following his long, mysterious illness (the “syphilis” whispers of 
many decades have lately reintrigued historians) Lenin expired in ef- 
fective isolation on January 21, 1924. Stalin, a seminarian in his youth, 
understood the power of relics and was one of the early proponents of 


J920s: Lenin's Cake 

keeping the cadaver "alive.” At a 1923 Politburo session he’d already 
proposed that “contemporary science” offered a possibility of preserv- 
ing the body, at least temporarily. Some Bolsheviks howled at the reek 
of deification. Krupskaya objected too, but nobody asked her. 

From January 2 7 on, Lenin’s body lay in state at the unheated Hall 
of Columns in Moscow. The weather was so bitter that the palm trees 
laid on inside for the funeral froze. An icy fog hung over Red Square; 
mourners were treated for frostbite. But the cold helped preserve the 
“mournee” for awhile. 

The idea to replace the temporary embalmment with something eter- 
nal apparently arose spontaneously among the Funeral Commission 
swiftly renamed the Immortalization Commission. Refrigeration was 
being mulled over, but as the weather warmed the body deteriorated, 
and the Commission panicked. Enter Boris Zbarsky, a self-promoting 
biochemist, and Vladimir Vorobyev, a gifted provincial pathologist. 
The pair proposed a radical embalming method. Miraculously, their 
wild gambit worked. Even a reluctant Krupskaya later told Zbarsky; 
“Em getting older and he looks just the same.” 

So the USSR had a New Soviet Eternal Man. Proof in the flesh 
that Soviet science could defeat even the grave. Socialist reshaping of 
humanity, it seemed, had soared beyond wildest imagining— far beyond 
a new everyday life. The antireligious Bolshevik of Bolsheviks, who had 
ordered clergy murdered and churches destroyed, was now a living relic, 
immortal in the manner of Orthodox saints. 

From August 1924 on, the miraculous Object No. 1 (as it would 
later be code-named) preened for Red Square crowds inside a tem- 
porary wooden shrine created by the Constructivist architect Alexei 
Shchusev. Shchusev would go on to build the permanent mausoleum, 
the now iconic ziggurat of red, gray, and black stone the inner sanctum 
of which I was so desperate to penetrate as a child. The mavzoley was 
unveiled in 1930, but without particular fanfare. By then the USSR 
had a successor-God, one who was relegating Lenin to hazy Holy Spirit 

Lenin, incidentally, transmigrated from this distant, idealized 



Spirithood into warm and fuzzy dedushkahood during the Brezhnevian 
phase of his cult. That’s when the didactic cake stories became popu- 
lar, along with that silly iconographic cap on his bald head— asserting 
Ilyich’s modest, friendly, proletarian nature. 

The country would by then be wary of God-like personality cults. 




The Frumkin family: Yulia. Liza. Sashka. Naum. Larisa, and Liza's father, Dedushka Yankel, in 1943 



Like most Soviet kids of her time, my mother was raised on stories by 
Arkady Gaidar. Gaidar’s tales are suffused with a patriotic romanticism 
that doesn’t ring insincere even today. They fairly brim with positive 
characters — characters who know that the true meaning of happiness 
is “to live honestly toil hard, and deeply love and protect that vast 
fortunate land called The Soviet Country. Mom was particularly struck 
by a story titled “The Blue Cup.” After overcoming a spell of conflict, a 
young family sits under a tree ripe with cherries on a late-summer night 
(spring and summer, one ironic critic remarked, being the only two 
seasons permissible in socialist realism). A golden moon glows overhead. 
A train rumbles past in the distance. The main character sums things 
up, closing the story: "And life, comrades, was good . entirely good.” 

This phrase filled my five-year-old mother with alienation and 

To this day she can’t really explain why. Her parents, youthful, striv- 
ing, and faithful to the State, exemplified Gaidarian virtues and the 
Stalinist vision of glamour. Liza, her mother, was a champion gymnast, 
an architect, and a painter of sweet watercolors. Naum, her father, pos- 
sessed a radiant smile and a high, honest forehead to go along with his 
spiffy naval caps, which smelled of the foreign cologne he brought back 
from frequent trips abroad. If Mom and her younger sister, Yulia, were 
good, Naum would let them pin his shiny badges on their dresses and 



dance in front of the mirror. On his rare days off he’d take them to the 
Park of Culture and Relaxation named after Gorky. 

Mother had a second father, of course. Like her kindergarten class- 
mates, she began each school day gazing up at a special poster and 
thanking him for her joyous, glorious childhood. On the poster the 
youthfully middle-aged Genius of Humanity and Best Friend of All 
Children was smiling under the black wings of his mustaches. In his 
arms a beautiful little girl also smiled. With her dark hair cut in a bowl 
shape, the girl reminded Mom of herself, only with Asiatic features. She 
was the legendary Gelya (short for Engelsina, from Friedrich Engels) 
Markizova. Daughter of a commissar from the Buryat-Mongol region, 
she came to the Kremlin with a delegation and handed a bouquet of 
flowers to the Supreme Leader, whereupon he lifted her in his arms, 
warming her with his amused, benevolent gaze. Cameras flashed. After 
appearing on the front page of Izvestia , the photograph became one of 
the decade’s iconic images. It was reproduced on millions of posters, 
in paintings and sculptures. Gelya was the living embodiment of every 
Soviet child’s dream. 

Comrade Stalin kept a watchful eye over Mom and her family, she 
was sure of that. And yet a pall hung over her. Life, she suspected, was 
not “entirely good.” In place of big bright Soviet happiness, my mother’s 
heart often filled with toska, a word for which there is no English equiv- 
alent. “At its deepest and most painful,” explains Vladimir Nabokov, 
“toska is a sensation of great spiritual anguish. ... At less morbid levels 
it is a dull ache of the soul.” 

When Mom heard cheerful choruses on the radio, she imagined 
squalid people singing drunkenly around a putrid-smelling barrel of 
pickles. Sometimes she’d refuse to go out into the street, frightened of 
the black public loudspeakers broadcasting the glories of the Five-Year 
Plan. Many things about Moscow made her feel scared and small. At 
the Revolution Square station of the new metro, she ran as quickly as 
she could past bronze statues of athletic figures with rifles and pneu- 
matic drills. No use. Night after night she was haunted by nightmares 
of these statues coming alive and tossing her mother into a blazing fur- 
nace, like the one in the mural at the Komsomolskaya station. 


J930S: Thank You, Comrade Stalin, for Our Happy Childhood 

Perhaps she had such dreams because the parents of other children 
were disappearing. 

There were many things my mother didn’t know, couldn’t have 
known, at the time. She didn’t know that Arkady Gaidar, beloved writer 
for the young, had brutally murdered civilians, including women and 
children, as a Red commander during the civil war. She didn’t know 
that one year after that bouquet at the Kremlin, Gelya Markizova s fa- 
ther was accused of a plot against Stalin and executed just one of an 
estimated twelve to twenty million victims of Stalin. Gelya’s mother 
perished as well. The poster child for a happy Stalinist childhood was 
deported and raised in an orphanage. 

★ ★ ★ 

Darkness. The unyielding blackness of Arctic winter in Murmansk is 
my mother’s earliest memory. She was born in sunny Odessa, a barely 
alive five-pound preemie bundled in wads of coarse cotton. Her father 
was then sent to Russia’s extreme northwest to head the intelligence 
unit of the newly formed Northern Flotilla. The year was the relatively 
benign 1934. The harvest was decent. Collectivization’s famines and 
horrors were slowly subsiding. Ration cards were being phased out, first 
for bread and sugar, then meat. 

Myska — childspeak for “little mouse” — was Mother’s very first word, 
because mice scurried along the exposed wires above her bed in the tiny 
room she shared with her sister and parents. Thinking back on those 
days, Mother imagines herself as a mouse, burrowing through some dark, 
sinister tunnel of early consciousness. She remembers the thunderous 
crunch of Murmansk’s snow under their horse-drawn sled, the salty taste 
of blood in her mouth after the icicles she liked to lick stuck to her tongue. 

Leningrad, where Naum was transferred in 1937, was a thousand ki- 
lometers south but still on the chill sixtieth degree of north latitude. Its 
darkness was different, though. Russia’s former imperial capital sug- 
gested various conjugations of gray: the steely reflection off the Neva 
River, with its somber granite embankments; the dull aluminum of 
the grease-filmed kasha bowls at Mother’s nursery school. In place of 



mice there were rats— the reason Uncle Vasya, their communal apart' 
ment neighbor, was missing half his nose. Too bad Mom’s name rhymed 
with krysa (rat). “Larisa-krysa, Larisa-krysa,” children taunted her in the 
courtyard. Liza occasionally took the girls to see museums and palaces 
in the center of town. Their melancholy neoclassical grandeur con- 
trasted starkly with the web of bleak alcoholic alleys near their apart- 
ment. Mother was inconsolable when a drunk trampled and ruined her 
brand-new galoshes, so shiny and black, so red inside. 

Bleak too was the mood in the city. Three years earlier, Leningrad’s 
charismatic Communist boss Sergei Kirov had been shot down in the 
corridors of the Smolny I nstitute, local Party headquarters, by a dis- 
gruntled ex-Party functionary. His killing signaled the prologue to the 
years of paranoia, midnight knocks on the door, denunciations, witch 
hunts for "enemies of the people,” and mass slaughter that would come 
to be known as the Great Terror of 1937-38. Stalin’s suspected involve- 
ment in Kirov’s murder has never been proved. But the Friend of All 
Children was quick to seize the moment. After planting a sorrowful 
kiss on Kirov’s brow at his operatic show funeral, Stalin unleashed an 
opening paroxysm of violence against his own political enemies. The 
show trials would follow. The charge of conspiracy to kill Kirov was 
used until 1938; it offered one of the key justifications of terror among 
the grab bag of crimes against the Soviet State and betrayals thereof. 
Thousands were arrested without cause and shipped to the gulags or 
killed. Moscow staged the most notorious trials (including the trial of 
Zelensky, my great-great-grandmother Anna Alexeevna’s boss), but 
Leningrad’s suffering was possibly deeper still. By 1937 the former cap- 
ital had been ravaged by deportations and executions. It was Stalin’s 
vendetta against the city he hated, the locals whispered. Indeed, after 
Kirov’s coffin left Leningrad for Moscow, the Great Leader never set 
foot by the Neva again. 

★ ★ ★ 

I look at a picture of my mother from that time. She has an upturned 
nose, a bob of black hair, wary, defiant eyes. She’s laughing, but in her 


J 930 s: Thank You, Comrade Stalin, for Our Happy Childhood 

laughter there seems to lurk a shadow. In constructing the narrative 
of her childhood. Mother likes to portray herself as Dissident-Born, a 
young prodigy of distress, instinctively at odds with the land of happy 
children of Stalin. A thousand times I’ve heard her tales of constantly 
running away from summer camps and health sanatoria. Of how she 
finally escaped to America as an adult and at last stopped running. 

But to when and what, exactly, does she trace the origins of her 
childhood toska ? I've always wanted to know. And now I learn about 
one particular wintry day. 

It’s still pitch-black outside when Liza yanks Larisa from her blanket 
cocoon. “Hurry hurry, we have to get there by six for the start,” she 
urges, blowing furiously on Mom’s farina to cool it. On the sled ride 
wet snow cakes Mother’s face; the tubercular Baltic chill pierces right 
through her limbs still heavy with slumber. Despite the early hour she 
hears marching songs in the distance, sees people hurrying somewhere. 
Why is this? Her stomach tightens with alarm and foreboding. A sick 
worm of fear comes alive; it keeps gnawing at her intestines as she fi- 
nally reaches a thronged hall inside a building decked out with life-size 
posters of Great Comrade Stalin. Her parents push through the crowds 
toward officials bellowing greetings on loudspeakers behind a long 
table covered with kumach, the crimson calico of the Soviet flag. The 
march music turns deafening. Her parents fill out some papers and mo- 
mentarily she loses them in the commotion. “They’re voting! ” a woman 
in the crowd cries, handing Mom a red baby-size flag— on this day, De- 
cember 12, 1937. Voting. It’s a new word. It stems from golos, or “voice.” 
Could her parents be screaming for her? She starts to scream too, but 
her shrieks are drowned out by song. 

“Shiroka strana moya rodnaya" (“O vast is my country!”), the people are 
singing. “There’s no other country where a man breathes more freely.” Swept up 
in the collective elation. Mom inhales as deep as she can, filling her 
lungs with what she will always describe as “that smell” — the Soviet in- 
stitutional odor of dusty folders, karbolka cleaner, woolen coats, and feet 
stewing in rubber galoshes, which will haunt her all her adult life in the 



USSR, at offices, schools, political meetings, at work. Her parents find 
her at last. They are beaming with pride, laugh at her anguish. 

By evening Mom is happy again. On the family’s afternoon stroll, 
Leningrad’s vast squares look dazzling, decked out in red slogans and 
posters. Tiny lights outline the buildings in the early dusk. And now on 
their way to Uncle Dima’s house Naum is promising that they will see 
the salut from his balcony. What’s salut> Why on the balcony? “Just wait, 
you’ll see!” says Naum. 

Mom’s excited to be visiting Uncle Dima Babkin. He isn’t really her 
uncle; he’s her dad’s tall, bald naval boss. In his high-ceilinged apart- 
ment, he has a rosy-cheeked baby and twin girls a little older than Mom, 
and, always, a never-ending supply of sugary podushechki candies. When 
they arrive, the family is celebrating full-throttle. Bottles burst open 
with a loud popping of corks; toasts are drunk to Russia’s historic elec- 
tion and to the arrival of Uncle Dima’s elderly father from Moscow. 
“Vast is my country,” sing the children, dancing around the baby’s crib, 
which Uncle Dima’s wife has filled with sweet raisin rusks. Any min- 
ute Aunt Rita, Dima’s sister, will arrive with her famous cake called 

Uncle Dima’s whole building is, in fact, celebrating Election Day; 
neighbors stream in and out, borrowing chairs, carrying treats. 

“Aunt Rita? Napoleon?” scream the children constantly darting up 
to the door. 

There is a short, harsh buzz of the doorbell— but instead of cake 
Mom sees three men in long coats by the entrance. How come they 
don’t bring tangerines or pirozhki, she wonders? Why haven’t they 
shaken the snow off their felt valenki boots before entering — as every 
polite Russian must do? 

“We’re looking for Babkin!” barks one of the men. 

“Which Babkin?” Uncle Dima’s wife asks with an uncertain smile. 
“Father or son?” 

The men look confused for a moment. “Well . . . both— sure, why 
not?” they say, and they shrug. “Both.” They almost giggle. 

The silence that follows, and the smile that’s turned strangely 


1930S: Thank You, Comrade Stalin, for Our Happy Childhood 

petrified on Uncle Dima’s wife’s face, reawakens the worm in Mom’s 
stomach. As if in slow motion, she watches Uncle Dima and his old fa- 
ther go off with the men. To her relief, the family’s babushka orders the 
children onto the balcony to see the salut. Outside, the black night erupts 
in glitter. Fiery thrills shoot through Mom’s body with each new soar- 
ing, thundering explosion of fireworks. Green! Red! Blue! — blooming 
in the sky like giant, sparkling, jubilant bouquets. But when she goes 
back inside she is startled to see Uncle Dima’s wife splayed out on the 
couch, panting. And the house is filled with the sweet-rotten odor of 
valerian drops. And silence— -that dead, scary silence. 

★ ★ ★ 

Arrests to the popping of corks, horror in the next room from happi- 
ness, fear emblazoned with fireworks and pageantry— this was the split 
reality, the collective schizophrenia of the 1930s. Venom-spitting news 
accounts of the show trials of “fascist dogs of the Trotskyite-Zinovievite 
gang” ran beside editorials gushing over crepe de chine dresses at “model 
department stores” and the “blizzards of confetti” at park carnivals. 

People sang. Sometimes they sang on their way to the firing squad, 
chanting “O Vast I s My Country,” a tune used as a station signal for Radio 
Moscow even during my youth. Featured in Circus, a Fiollywood-style 
musical comedy, “O Vast Is My Country” was composed to celebrate 
Stalin’s new 1936 constitution, heralded as “the world’s most demo- 
cratic.” On paper it even restored voting rights to the formerly disen- 
franchised classes (kulaks, children of priests). Except now arrests were 
not so much class-based as guided by regional quotas affecting every 
stratum of the society. 

Chronicles of Stalin's terror have naturally shaped the narrative of 
the era. They dominate so completely, one can forgive Westerners for 
imagining the Soviet thirties as one vast gray prison camp, its numbed 
inhabitants cogs in the machinery of the State that promoted itself 
solely through murder, torture, and denunciation. This vision, how- 
ever, doesn’t convey the totalizing scope of the Stalinist civilization. A 



hypnotic popular culture, the State’s buoyant consumer goods drive, 
and a never-ending barrage of public celebrations— all stoked a mes- 
merizing sense of building a Radiant Future en masse. 

Those who didn’t perish or disappear into the gulags were often 
swallowed up in the spectacle of totalitarian joy. Milan Kundera de- 
scribes it as “collective lyrical delirium.” Visiting Russia in 1936, Andre 
Gide couldn’t stop marveling at the children he saw, “radiant with 
health and happiness,” and the “joyous ardor” of park-goers. 

When I think of the Stalinist State, which I knew only as a banished 
ghost, these are the images that come to my mind: Nadezhda Mandel- 
stam’s description of her husband, the poet Osip Mandelstam, being 
led away to the sounds of a Hawaiian guitar in a neighbor’s apartment. 
Anna Akhmatova’s unbearably tragic poem “Requiem” (dedicated to the 
victims of purges) juxtaposed with the indomitable cheer of Volga-Volga, 
an infectiously kitsch celluloid musical comedy of the time. Alexander 
Solzhenitsyn’s account of the voronkt (black Mariahs), prison transports 
disguised as brightly painted comestibles trucks, their sides eventually 
featuring ads for Sovetskoye brand champagne with a laughing girl. 

The frenzy of industrialization of the first Five-Year Plan (1928-32) 
had bulldozed and gang-marched a rural society into something resem- 
bling modernity— even as officials suppressed details of the millions of 
deaths from famines brought on by collectivization. In 1931, more than 
four million peasant refugees flooded the overwhelmed cities. The state 
needed something to show for all the upheavals. And so in 1935 Stalin 
uttered one of his most famous pronou ncements. 

“Life has gotten better, comrades, life has gotten more cheerful,” 
he declared at the first conference of Stakhanovites, those celebrated 
over-fulfillers of socialist labor quotas, whose new movement emulated 
the uberminer Alexei Stakhanov, famed for hewing 102 tons of coal in 
one workshift. “And when life is happier, work is more effective,” Stalin 

After the speech, reported one participant, the Leader of Progres- 
sive Mankind joined all in a song from the wildly popular screen farce 
Jolly Fellows, released weeks after Kirov’s murder. The Genius of Hu- 
manity liked music, and occasionally even edited song lyrics himself. He 


J 930 s: Thank You, Comrade Stalin, for Our Happy Childhood 

had personally instigated Soviet movie musical comedy by expounding 
to director Grigory Alexandrov — former assistant to Sergei Eisenstein 
in Hollywood — on the need for fun and cheer in the arts. The melodies 
and mirth that exploded onto Soviet screens in the late thirties were 
the socialist realist answer to Hollywood’s dream factory. Instead of 
Astaire and Rogers, dashing shepherds burst into song and gutsy girl 
weavers achieved fairy-tale Stakhanovite apotheoses. “Better than a 
month’s vacation,” pronounced Stalin after seeing Jolly Fellows, which 
was Alexandrov’s jazzy, madcap debut. The Leader saw the director’s 
1938 musical Volgd'Volga more than a hundred times. Never mind that 
the main cameraman had been arrested during filming and executed, 
and the screenwriter had written the lines in exile. 

Quoted on posters and in the press and, of course, set to music, Sta- 
lin’s “life is happier” mantra established the tonality for the second half 
of the decade. It was more than just talk. In a fairly drastic redrawing of 
Bolshevik values, the State ditched the utopian asceticism of the twen- 
ties and encouraged a communist version of bourgeois life. The Radi- 
ant Future was arriving, citizens were told. Material rewards — offered 
for outstanding productivity and political loyalty — were the palpable 
proof. Promises of prosperity and abundance invaded public discourse 
so thoroughly, they shimmered like magical incantations in the collec- 
tive psyche. Stakhanovite superworkers boasted in the pages of Pravda 
and Izvestia about how many rubles they earned. They stood beaming 
beside their new furniture sets and gramophones — rewards for “joyous 
socialist labor.” Anything capitalism could do for hardworking folk, 
went the message, socialism could do better — and happier. 

The masses even got to pop a cork on occasion. Scant years after 
the paroxysms of the first Five-Year Plan, Stalin turned his thoughts to 
reviving Russia’s fledgling, pre- revolutionary champagne industry, cen- 
tered by the Black Sea near the Crimea. Sovetskoye Shampanskoye be- 
came a frothy emblem of Stalin’s directive, in his words “an important 
sign ... of the good life.” Garbo’s Ninotchka may have cooed about only 
knowing bubbly from newsreels. But by the thirties’ end Soviet fizzy, 
mass-produced in pressurized reservoir vats, would be embraced by the 
Soviet common man. It could even be found on tap in stores. 



Alongside abundance and prosperity, the third pillar of Sta- 
lin’s new cultural edifice was kulturnost’ (culturedness). Hence, Soviet 
citizens— many of them formerly illiterate— were exhorted to civilize 
themselves. From table manners to tangos, from perfume to Pushkin, 
from tasseled lampshades to Swan Lake , the activities and mores reviled 
by the earlier Bolsheviks as bourgeois contamination were embraced as 
part of the new Homo sovieticus. If a member of the nomenklatura (Com- 
munist political elite) showed up at a meeting in his trophy silk pajamas 
and carrying a chocolate bar, it just went to show that socialism was doing 
swell. The teetotaler Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet premier, took tango 
lessons. His imperious wife, Polina Zhemchuzhina, delivered perfume to 
the masses in her role as chairman of the cosmetics trust. The food supply 
commissariat established and codified a Soviet cuisine canon. 

Russia’s annus horribilus of 1937, which closed with the carnival- 
esque December election festivities, was launched with a lavish New 
Year’s Day yolka (fir tree) party for kids at the Kremlin. The tubby co- 
median Mikhail Garkavi played Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost), the 
Russian answer to Santa. Banned by the Bolsheviks for ten years as reli- 
gious obscurantism. New Year’s fetes— and fir trees — had just returned 
from the political cold with the Great Leader’s approval, at the initiative 
of one Pavel Postyshev. This man whom Soviet children could thank 
for their new winter gaiety was also one of the chief engineers of the 
Ukrainian famine; he himself would be shot a year later. Still wearing 
his long, flowing Ded Moroz robe and white beard, Garkavi appeared 
later that New Year’s Day at a Stakhanovite ball attended by Stalin. “All 
are strictly cautioned to leave their sadness outside,” joshed a placard in- 
side the ballroom. Garkavi popped a cork of Sovetskoye Shampanskoye. 
The tradition is still going strong to this day, even if the brand is being 
eclipsed by Dom Perignon. 

★ ★ ★ 

When Mom was five and Yulia was four they moved to Moscow. It was 
1939. The country was celebrating Stalin’s sixtieth birthday, and Naum 
his promotion — to the “Capital of the New World,” to Headquarters. 


79305 : Thank You, Comrade Stalin, for Our Happy Childhood 

Mom still had her bouts of toska, but life did get a bit better in Mos- 
cow. A little jollier, you could say. 

For one thing, Moscow wasn’t dark. Their ninth-floor apartment 
boasted an airy panorama of shingled old city roofs from the window. It 
was still a communal apartment, to be shared with shrill, dumpling-like 
Dora and her henpecked husband. But it had new plywood furniture, 
and it had gas — gas! — in place of their Leningrad burzhuika (bourgeois) 
coal-burning stove, which always ran out of fuel by morning, leaving a 
veil of frost on the walls. 

Best of all was the building itself. Constructed the year before in 
the fashionable Stalinist Empire style— a bulky mash-up of deco and 
neoclassical — it resembled an organ, or perhaps musical staves, its verti- 
cal lines zooming up from an imposing ground -floor loggia. The mu- 
sical reference was not accidental. Neither were the extra-thick walls 
(such a boon in this era of eavesdropping). The house was created as a 
co-op for the Union of Soviet Composers, with a small quota of apart- 
ments for the military. Songs poured out of the open windows the sum- 
mer Mother moved in. 

I always get goose bumps thinking of my five-year-old mom living 
among the George Gershwins and Irving Berlins of the socialist order. 
They were the people whose buoyant, jubilant marches I still sing in 
the shower. Along with generations of Russians, I’ve got them under 
my skin — which of course was the plan. “Mass song” was a vital tool 
in molding the new Soviet consciousness. Song set the romantic-heroic 
tone of the era. Song fused individual with kollektiv, comrade with State. 
It carried the spirit of sunny, victorious optimism into every choking 
communal apartment, glorifying labor, entrenching ideology — all in 
catchy tunes you couldn’t stop humming. 

Mom didn’t actually share the collective zest for mass song. But there 
was no escaping the iron grip of Ninka, her new best chum in the build- 
ing. Daughter of a Jewish symphonist and an Armenian pianist, brash 
and imperious Ninka had raven-black eyebrows and fingertips callused 
from violin lessons. She appointed herself Mom’s musical instructor. 

“Were eternally warmed . . . by the sun-ny Stalinist glor-y! C’mon, haven’t 
you memorized the words yet?” she’d demand. 



“Reason gave us steel wings for arms," she’d continue, trying another pop- 
ular tune, wincing at Mom’s off-key attempts to keep up. “And a fiery 
motor instead of a heart.” 

“People had mechanical parts in their bodies?” asked Mom. 

"The song celebrates Stalin’s Falcons!” 

“What are Stalin’s Falcons?” 

“Our Soviet Aviators — clueless dimwit!” 

In good weather Ninka conducted her tutorials on the building fire 
escape. “Ooh . . . the brothers Pokrass!” she’d swoon, pointing at two 
men passing below, one lanky, the other plump and short, both with 
big frizzy hair that sat like hats on their heads. Didn’t Mom know 
their song “The Three Tankmen”? From the film Tractor Drivers? Mom 
couldn’t admit to Ninka she hadn’t yet seen real kino. With perfect pitch 
(she did truly have a golden ear), Ninka chanted another “ very impor- 
tant” Pokrass work. “Bustling! Mighty! Invincible! My country. My Moscow. 
You are my true beloved!” In my own childhood this was the song Mom 
always turned off when it played on the radio. The radio played it a lot. 

Ninka’s musical bullying was tiresome. But at least now Mom could 
sing along at the parades Naum zealously attended whenever he re- 
turned to Moscow from his mysterious, vaguely explained absences. 
The parades . . . well, they were deafening, overwhelming. And what of 
all those small kids perched on their dads’ shoulders, shouting, “Look, 
papochka , what a scary mustache!” when they saw Comrade Stalin? 
Eyes stark with fear, papa would clap a big, unclean hand over his kid’s 
mouth. Naum never had to muzzle Larisa or Yulia. Fie was dashing and 
funny, his squarish nails were immaculate, and he had a privileged view 
of the Leadership’s podium from his special Red Square parade bench. 
“Comrade — are you Stalin’s Falcon?” Mom would ask in a small, po- 
lite voice whenever an aviator she’d recognize from newspaper photos 
shook Naum’s hand. 

And so it went. May Day. Constitution Day. Revolution Day. Thun- 
derous welcomes for aviators and polar explorers. Citizens marched; 
their children sucked sticky ruby-red Kremlin Star lollipops. Mean- 
while, just outside the city, on one busy day alone in 1938, 562 “enemies 
of the people” were shot and dumped in trenches by the NKYD, the 


1930 S: Thank You, Comrade Stalin, for Our Happy Childhood 

secret police, at its Butovo firing range. There were many thousands 
more. The German historian Karl Schlogel sums up the atmosphere 
of the times in his description of Red Square. “Everything converges: a 
ticker-tape parade and a plebiscite on killing, the atmosphere of a folk 
festival and the thirst for revenge, a rollicking carnival and orgies of 
hate. Red Square ... at once fairground and gallows.” 

I was born in Moscow. The seventies capital of my childhood seemed 
as familiar and comforting to me as a pair of old slippers. Mother’s 
anti-Soviet zeal assured I never trooped in a single parade in my life, 
never once peered at Lenin's cosmeticized corpse at his Red Square 

But often 1 lie awake nights imagining Mom, a tiny, reluctantly 
choral protagonist in the mythology of high Stalinist Moscow. The 
city of her childhood was engulfed in newcomers — from the upwardly 
mobile nomenklatura like Naum to dispossessed victims of collectiviza- 
tion fleeing the countryside. Pharaonic construction works boomed 
nonstop. Avenues became behemoths ten lanes wide, historic churches 
were turned to rubble, from vast pits rose socialist public magnificences. 
“Bustling. Mighty, invincible” How overwhelming the “Heart of the So- 
cialist Homeland” must have seemed to an alienated, sad child. 

Sometimes I picture Mom clutching Liza’s hand on the escalator 
sinking 130 feet below ground into the electrified blaze of the pala- 
tial, newly built Moscow Metro. What did Larisa make of the lofty 
stained glass and acres of steel and colored granite — of more marble 
than had been used by all the czars? Did her neck hurt from gazing up 
at the Mayakovskaya station’s soaring subterranean cupolas, with their 
mosaics of parachutists and gymnasts and Red Army planes pirouet- 
ting against baroque blue skies? Were they really so nightmarish, those 
eighty-two life-size bronze statues half crouching under the rhythmic 
arches of the Revolution Square station? Didn't they produce in Mom 
the stunned awe of a medieval child at Chartres? 

Looking back, ever-dissident Mom wavers about the metro, one 
minute gushing, the next bashing it as vile propaganda. 



But about the All-Union Agricultural Exhibition she is unequivocal. 
“In September 1939, at six years of age” she says, “I saw earthly 

On a crisp autumn morning in the northern part of Moscow, young 
Larisa and her family strolled into Eden through monumental entry 
arches crowned by Vera Mukhina’s triumphant sculpture The Worker 
and the Kolkhoz Woman. They passed into a wide alley of dancing foun- 
tains and on toward an eighty-foot statue of Stalin. Stakhanovite grow- 
ers told them tales of their achievements in the Sugarbeet Pavilion. At 
the marbled courtyard of the star-shaped Uzbekistan Pavilion, dark, 
round-faced women with myriad braids flowing from their embroi- 
dered skullcaps dispensed green tea and puffy round breads. Uzbeks, 
Tajiks, Tatars! Never had Mother suspected that such a riot of physiog- 
nomies and ethnic costumes existed. 

Designed as a microcosm of the Soviet Empire’s glories, the Exhi- 
bition’s sprawling six hundred acres showcased exotic USSR republics 
and feats in practically every agricultural realm from dairy farming to 
rabbit breeding. The republics’ pavilions were fabulously decorated in 
“native” styles — “national in form, socialist in content,” as Stalin, Father 
of All Nations, prescribed. Inside Armenia’s pink limestone edifice 
Mom rushed over to a giant aquarium where mountain trout nosed and 
flitted. At Georgia’s Orientalist headquarters, she and Yulia brazenly 
grabbed at tangerines on a low branch in a subtropical garden where 
persimmon trees flowered and palms swayed. Soon it all became one 
dazzling blur. Model socialist hen eggs. Pink prizewinning pigs. Every- 
thing more beautiful, more “real” than life. The mini-fields sprouted 
perfect rye, wheat, and barley. Mom recalled her bullying pal Ninka’s 
favorite song: “We were born to turn fairy tale into reality.” A very true song, 
thought Mom, tonguing the chocolate shell off her Eskimo pie as they 
toured the mini-kolkhoz replete with a culture club and a maternity 

My poor dissident mother: in moments of candor she admits to 
this day that her vision of ideal love is walking arm in arm amid the 


1930S: Thank You, Comrade Stalin, for Our Happy Childhood 

splendiferous gardens of the Georgia Pavilion. But what inflamed her 
imagination the most was the food. If she closes her eyes, she claims 
to smell the musky striped adjui melons at the Uzbek Pavilion; taste 
the crunch of red Kazakh apples that were sometimes the size of those 
Uzbek melons— thank you. Grandpa Michurin, the Soviet miracle plant 
breeder whose motto was “We cannot wait for favors from Nature; our 
task is to take them from her.” 

It was as if my mother had discovered a world beyond the universe 
of parades and blaring loudspeakers and institutional smells. The dis- 
covery sparked a fascination with food that has animated her all her life. 

“Finish your bouillon. Have another kotleta.” Liza’s admonitions 
now sounded inviting, caressing. They whispered to Mom of a dif- 
ferent, far more intimate happiness than Comrade Stalin’s collective 
ideals. And when Naum was at the table, life seemed particularly cheer- 
ful. With him there, Liza reached with special abandon into the box 
hung outside their window — Stalin-era refrigeration — for their nomen- 
klatura food parcels wrapped in blue paper. 

Out came a rosy bologna called Doctor’s Kolbasa. Or sosiski, Mom’s 
favorite frankfurters. Boiled taut, they squirted salty juice into your 
mouth when you bit into them, and they tasted particularly good with 
sweet gray-green peas from a can. Stores didn’t usually carry those cans. 
For them Mom and Liza had to trudge to an unmarked depot guarded 
by an unsmiling man. Naum was “attached” to such a depot store — as 
were many Moscow bigwigs. The babushka working the lift, on the 
other hand, wasn’t attached. Mom could tell this from her sad lunch of 
rotten-smelling boiled eggs sprinkled with salt she kept in little foldings 
of Pravda. 

When visitors came, Liza made fish suspended in glistening aspic 
and canapes with frilly mayonnaise borders. The guests — men in dressy 
naval suits, women with bright red lips — brought with them the crisp 
fall air and candies with names like Happy Childhood and Soviet North 
Pole. A momentous event was the gift of a dinner service with golden 
borders around tiny pink flowers, replacing their mismatched chipped 
plates and cups. The same high-ranking naval officer who brought the 
service gave Liza a book. 



The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food was hefty, with a somber parsley- 
green cover. Openingit, Mom gasped at the trove of fantastical photos . . , 
of tables crowded with silver and crystal, of platters of beef decorated 
with tomato rosettes, of boxes of chocolates and wedges of frilly cake 
posed amid elaborate tea sets. The images roused the same euphoria 
Mom had felt at the agricultural exhibition. They conjured up skatert’ 
samohranka, an enchanted tablecloth from a Russian folk fairy tale that 
covered itself with food at the snap of a finger. Mom thought again 
about Ninka’s song. Liza could even turn this fairy tale into reality, it 
seemed. She said the book contained recipes, and the dinner sets pic- 
tured were identical to the new one they’d been given. 

Fish. Juices. Konservi (conserves). One day Mom shocked Liza by an- 
nouncing that she could now read the words in the book. And the book, 
and the labels of the packaged foods in their house — many of these deli- 
cious things often contained an exotic word: Mi-ko-yan. Was it a kind of 
sosiski? Or perhaps kotleti — not the uninspired homemade meat pat- 
ties, but the trim store-bought ones that fried up to a fabulous greasy 
crunch. “Mi-ko-yan,” said Mom to herself when Liza was cooking a 
dinner for guests, and scrupulously comparing her table setting to the 
photographs in the parsley-green book. In those moments life seemed 
good to my mother. Yes, entirely good. 

★ ★ ★ 

Mikoyan — first name Anastas, patronymic Ivanovich — was a petite 
Bolshevik from Armenia with a hawk nose angling over a mustache 
trimmer and more dapper than that of his fellow son of the Caucasus, 
Stalin. His gait was quick and determined, his gaze unsettlingly sharp. 
But petitioners in his office would on occasion be offered an orange. 
Fellow Kremlinites also knew that Anastas Ivanovich grew an exotic, 
some might say extravagant vegetable called asparagus at his dacha. 
Anastas Mikoyan was the narkom (people’s commissar) of the Soviet 
food industry. If writers were “engineers of the human soul” (per Com- 
rade Stalin), then Mikoyan was the engineer of the Soviet palate and 


79 30 s: Thank You, Comrade Stalin, for Our Nappy Childhood 

Three years before Mom got hooked on sosiski made by the Mikoyan 
Meat Processing Plant and opened the green cookbook he’d sponsored, 
the narkom had his suitcases packed for a Crimean vacation. It was a 
holiday he’d long promised his wife, Ashkhen, and their five sons. He 
dropped by the Kremlin to say goodbye to his boss and old comrade, 
whom he addressed with fy, the familiar intimate form of “you.” 

“Why don’t you go instead to America,” Stalin proposed unexpect- 
edly. “It, too, will be a pleasant vacation; besides, we need to research 
the American food industry. The best of what you discover,” he de- 
clared, “we’ll transplant here.” 

Mikoyan gauged the Supreme Leader’s mood: the proposal was im- 
promptu but serious. Even so, he demurred: “I’ve promised Ashkhen a 
holiday.” Mikoyan was famously family-minded. 

Stalin must have been in good spirits. 

“Take Ashkhen with you,” he suggested. 

Who knows how Soviet food would have tasted had Stalin not al- 
lowed the narkom's wife to join her husband. Had the Mikoyans sunned 
themselves on the Black Sea instead. 

One wonders too how the Armenian managed for so long to retain 
Stalin’s favor while other Politburo members were “liquidated” or saw 
their wives off to the gulags. “Anastas seems more interested in cheese 
varieties than in Marxism and Leninism,” Stalin would quip without 
reproach. Perhaps this escape into the world of sosiski, kolbasa, and 
condensed milk was Mikoyan’s secret of survival. Formerly ascetic in 
the old Bolshevik manner, Stalin by now was developing quite a palate 

Mikoyan and his foodie squad landed in New York on the SS Non 
mandie on a sweltering August morning in 1936. In their stopover in Ger- 
many they had drawn giggles with their identical new "European-style” 
outfits. For two months the Soviet expedition covered 12,000 miles of 
America by car and train, coast to coast. They toured fish, ice cream, 
and frozen fruit plants. They inspected production of mayonnaise, 
beer, and “inflated seeds” (Mikoyan-speak for popcorn). They stud- 
ied corrugated cardboard and metal jar lids. Wisconsin dairies, Chi- 
cago slaughterhouses, California fruit farms— not exactly the holiday 



Ashkhen had been promised. They ate intently at self-service cafete- 
rias. (“Here,” noted Mikoyan, “was a format born out of the bowels 
of capitalism but most suited to communism.”) They studied Macy’s 
display strategies — models for the trendsetting department stores that 
would emerge in Moscow by the end of the decade. 

In Detroit, Henry Ford told Mikoyan not to waste time on meat 
production. “Meat’s bad for you,” he insisted. Soviet workers should eat 
vegetables, soy products, and fruit. The Armenian narkom found Ford 
most peculiar. 

Urbane but unsmiling, Mikoyan could barely restrain himself in 
his rather dull late-life memoirs from gushing about the wonders of his 
American trip. Here was the efficient industrialized society for Stalin- 
ist Russia to emulate. Was it flash freezing or mechanized cow milking 
(take that, Stakhanovite milkmaids) that impressed him more? Maybe 
the fruit juices? True, Russia didn’t have enough oranges, but Mikoyan 
dreamed of turning tomato juice into a Soviet national drink. (Mis- 
sion accomplished: in my school days I gagged on the red stuff.) The 
ever-practical narkom showed no ideological qualms about adopting 
techniques and mass standardization from the capitalist West. These 
were the internationalist Soviet thirties, before World War 1 1 unleashed 
Stalinist xenophobia. Unlike evil, devious Britain, the United States 
was considered a semifriendly competitor — though having American 
relatives could still land you in the gulag. 

Perhaps what struck Mikoyan most was the American guy at a 
stainless-steel griddle who swiftly cooked a curious-looking kotleta, 
which he inserted into a split white bun, then flourished with pickles 
and dabs of red sauce. “For a busy man it is very convenient,” marveled 
Mikoyan. Didn’t Soviet workers deserve this efficient, cheap, filling 
snack on their parades, their outings to Parks of Culture and Relaxation? 

Mikoyan plunked down Stalin-approved scarce hard currency for 
twenty-two American hamburger grills, with the capacity to turn out 
two million orders a day. Burger production launched in select major 
cities, to some acclaim. But World War II intervened; the bun got lost 
in the shuffle. Soviet food planning settled instead for a take-out kot- 
leta, unsandwiched. 


7930S: Thank You, Comrade Stalin, for Our Happy Childhood 

“So that’s it?” I gasped, reading Mikoyan’s memoirs. 

“So that’s it?” gasped Mother when I passed her the book. 

Our mythic all- Soviet store-bought kotleta — thelump-in-the-throat 
nostalgic treat from five generations of childhoods. That’s what it was? 
An ersatz burger that mislaid its bun? Mikoyan’s account of the origins 
of Soviet ice cream further wounded what was left of my food patriot- 
ism. Morozhennoye — our national pride? The hard-as-rock plombir with 
its seductive cream rosette I licked at thirty below zero? The Eskimos 
on a stick from Mom’s childhood outings? Yup, all the result of Yankee 
technology, imported by Mikoyan. The savvy Armenian even coveted 
Coca-Cola but couldn’t wangle the syrup recipe. As for sosiski and kol- 
basa, those other ur-Soviet food icons . . . they were German sausages 
that, in Mikoyan’s words, “changed their citizenship.” So much for our 
ideologically charged native madeleines. 

Mikoyan returned from America loaded with samples, information, 
and brand-new wardrobes for himself and his wife. The Mickey Mouse 
pens he carried home for his sons were promptly stolen at the boys’ 
school for Politburo offspring. 

Given Russia’s still rudimentary consumer conditions, the narkom 
was able to introduce a surprising number of American novelties — from 
mass-produced ice cream (hitherto made by hand) to kornjfeks to the 
concept of prepackaged foods. A 1937 newspaper ad even urged Soviets 
to embrace a “spicy aromatic condiment” that “every American house- 
wife keeps in her cupboard.” Ketchup! Occasionally Stalin objected. 
Russian winters were long, he said, and there was no need to pro- 
duce the GE-style home fridges that Mikoyan wanted. What’s more, 
heavy-industry factories were preoccupied with defense orders. So until 
the end of the war Soviets made do with a box outside the window. 

Stalin took great personal interest in Mikoyan’s business. The Leader 
took great personal interest in many things. When he wasn’t busy sign- 
ing execution orders or censoring books or screening Volga'Volga, the 
Standardbearer of Communism opined on fish (“Why don’t we sell live 
fish like they did in the old days?”) or Soviet champagne. A fan of sweet 
bubbles, he wanted to ban brut production wholesale, but here Mikoyan 
held firm. Suds? Indeed. Mikoyan recalls how with his bloodthirsty 



henchmen Molotov and Kaganovich, Stalin fingered, sniffed, and cri- 
tiqued trial soap bars, deciding which should go into production. “Our 
comrade Stalin has a boundless resource of wisdom,” gushed Mikoyan 
of the soap venture. Clearly, the bathing habits of Homo sovieticus were a 
matter of great national concern. 

An obsessive micromanager himself, Mikoyan taste-tested each 
new food product, approved all recipes and label designs, okayed pun- 
ishments for wreckers and saboteurs. Stalin’s directive for happiness, 
abundance, and cheer loomed large. “Since life has gotten better,” wrote 
Mikoyan in a report, “we need to produce more aromatic high-quality 
cigarettes.” In a speech: “What kind of cheerful life can we have if 
there’s a shortage of beer and liqueurs?” Period food industry trade 
magazines portray their workers practically agog with joy and enthu- 
siasm. Inspired by Stalin’s credo, they’d even staged an amateur the- 
ater production called Abundance , featuring singing sausages. One of the 
comrades playing a sausage recalled using the Stanislavsky method to 
interpret her role. 

Or picture this. May Day. The Mikoyan Meat Plant procession 
parades toward Red Square under the portrait of the mustachioed 
Armenian and a festive panel of children with flowers beneath the 
HOODS. Banners emblazoned with sosiski, kolbasa, and bacon wave 
alongside — emblems of Soviet-issue smoked goodness. 

One pauses at the grotesquery of such scenes in this most murderous 
decade of a political regime in which abundance would remain a myth 
for another half-century. For those not attached to privileged stores — in 
the thirties and later — shortages of basic essentials were the grinding 
reality. And yet— Mom’s elderly friends remember equally vividly the 
prewar chocolates and champagne, the caviar and smoked fish magically 
materializing in stores before holidays. 

In 1937 Mikoyan’s favorite Red October Chocolate Factory pro- 
duced more than five hundred kinds of confections, his meat plant close 
to 150 kinds of sausages. True, these were mainly available at flagship 
stores in larger cities. (Moscow, with 2 percent of the population, got 
40 percent of the country’s meat allocation.) True, basics were often 


7 93 Os : Thank You, Comrade Stalin, for Our Happy Childhood 

neglected in favor of luxury items; the champagne, chocolates, and 
smoked sturgeon all served as shining political symbols, furthering 
the illusion that czarist indulgences were now accessible to the masses. 
And yet in his push to create a socialist consumer culture — based on 
Western models, ironically— and to democratize certain foodstuffs, 
Mikoyan delivered moments of happiness to the common folk. A pink 
slice of kolbasa on a slab of dark bread, Eskimo on a stick at a fair — in 
the era of terror these small tokens had an existential savor. 

On Stalin’s death in 1953, the secret police chief Beria was executed 
and Molotov was effectively exiled to outer Mongolia. But Mikoyan 
prospered. His ability to side with winners matched his uncanny mana- 
gerial skills. He backed Stalin against Trotsky, then denounced Stalin’s 
legacy and rose to the lofty post of Supreme Soviet chairman under 
Khrushchev. He voted for Khrushchev’s ouster and retained Brezhnev’s 
favor, tactfully retiring in 1965. Thirteen years later, he died of old age. 

A jingle summed up his career: “From Ilyich to Ilyich [Lenin’s and 
Brezhnev’s shared patronymic] without infarkt [heart attack] and paralich 

More resilient still were his kolbasa and sosiski. Just like my mother, 
when I was growing up I thought Mikoyan was the brand name of a 
kotleta. To our minds he was the Red Aunt Jemima or Chef Boyardee. 
The Mikoyan meat plant remains operational. These days it produces 
actual hamburgers. 

★ ★ ★ 

In the seventies, when Soviet Jews began emigrating, many packed 
Mikoyan’s hefty cookbook in their paltry forty-pound baggage. The 
Book of Tasty and Healthy Food had become a totalitarian Joy of Cooking — a 
kitchen bible so cherished, people lugged it with them even as they fled 
the State that published it. But the book didn’t keep its original parsley- 
green cover for long. Its color— physical and political — kept changing 
with each new regime and edition: a dozen editions in all, more than 
eight million copies in print, and still selling. Most iconic and politi- 
cized is the 1952 version, which I will revisit later. 



Mom, though, left her copy behind. The tattered volume that had 
taught her and her mother good socialist housekeeping was by then 
ideologically radioactive to her. She even despised the gaudy photos 
with the Soviet food industry logos meant to drive home the idea that 
the State was our sole provider. 

In the fall of 2010 , 1 presented my mother with an original 1939 edi- 
tion of Mikoyan’s masterwork. She flinched. Then she fell for it— hard. 
“Drab, dreary recipes,” she’d grumble while cooking up a storm from 
the book and matching her table settings in Queens to the ones in the 
photos as her mother had done in Moscow seventy years before. She 
piped mayonnaise borders onto “Stalinist-Baroque” crab salads. She 
carved tomato rosettes, trapped fish in aspic, and fashioned kotleti from 
meat, carrots, cabbage, and beets. Every night she telephoned friends, 
roaring at the book’s introduction, its vaunting invocations of “man- 
kind’s centuries-old dream of building a communist society ... of an 
abundant, happy, and joyous life.” 

“I’m not nostalgic!” she would correct me. “I just like old cookbooks, 
and this one, wow, a real antique!” 

Then: “Anyuta, what do they call that syndrome . . . when victims 
fall for their tormentors?” 

Followed by: “You dragged me into this!” 

Finally: “So what, I like all foods.” 

But never an admission of sentiment. 

★ ★ ★ 

One blustery Saturday night Mom’s elderly friends gather for a thirties- 
style dinner around her table set with ornamental cut-crystal bowls and 
bottles of sickly sweet Sovetskoye Shampanskoye. 

At first, the ladies recall their Stalinist childhoods with the guarded 
detachment of people who’ve long entombed their pasts. But with each 
new toast, fragments of horror and happiness tumble out, intermin- 
gled. They talk of the period’s dread silence, the morbid paralysis of 
families of the newly arrested, and in the same breath they remember 
the noise. 


1930S: Thank You, Comrade Stalin, for Our Happy Childhood 

“Living in the thirties was like being inside a giant metal forge,” 
says Inna. “Incessant drumbeats and songs, street loudspeakers, radios 
blasting behind every door.” 

“It was feast in a time of plague,” declares another friend, Lena, 
quoting the title of Pushkin’s play. “You were happy each new day you 
weren’t arrested. Happy to simply smell tangerines in your house!” 

“My father had murdered Kirov,” announces Musya, an octogenar- 
ian former Leningrader, in a clear, spirited voice. “I was convinced of 
this as a child. Why else would he and my uncle silently pass notes to 
each other at dinner?” 

Did she think of denouncing him? asks Inna. 

Musya vehemently shakes her head. “We Leningraders hated Sta- 
lin!” she retorts. “Before anyone else in the country, we knew.” When 
Musya’s uncle was arrested, men in long coats showed up and confis- 
cated her family’s furniture. Sometime afterward Musya recognized 
their chairs and sideboard at a secondhand shop. She jumped with joy, 
hugging and stroking the plush blue upholstery. Her mother just yanked 
her away. “I lost my innocence at that moment,” says Musya. 

“I remained innocent — I knew nothing until Stalin died,” Katya 
confesses. A vivacious former translator near ninety who still smokes 
and swears like a sailor, Katya grew up — “a true Soviet child” — in pro- 
vincial Ukraine. Happiness to her meant the clean, toasty smell in the 
house when her mom ironed the pleats on her parade skirts. And sing- 
ing along with the crowds. 

“I too knew nothing about Stalin’s crimes,” Inna puts in ever so qui- 
etly, nervously stroking her immaculate chignon. “But I hated him for 
taking my mother away.” What she means is that her fanatical mother 
devoted her every breath to the Party. “On the day she noticed me, 
hugged me, and promised to mend my socks, I went to bed the most 
euphoric child on the planet,” Inna tells us. Her mother never did mend 
the socks. When she was forced to relinquish her Party ID card because 
Inna was emigrating, “she howled like an animal.” 

The ladies finish their champagne and Mom’s Soviet-style truffles 
and prepare to depart. “Living under Stalin,” Inna reflects at the door, 
“we censored our thoughts, terrified when anything bad crossed our 



minds. Then when he died, we kept on censoring, purging any traces of 
happiness from our childhoods.” Everyone nods. 

★ ★ ★ 

The autumn cold of 1939 ended Mom’s fire escape music lessons. She 
and her pal Ninka found a different occupation: helping older kids in 
the building chase spies. All children in paranoid Russia played at chas- 
ing spies. Anyone could be a suspect. The lift lady, for instance, with her 
single odd metal coat button. Comrades wearing glasses, or fedora hats 
instead of proletarian caps. 

Along twisting lanes, through dim podvorotnt (deep archways), into 
silent, half-hidden courtyards — Mom and the gang pursued would-be 
evil betrayers of Rodina (Homeland). Mom liked the podvorotni. They 
smelled, not unpleasantly, of piss and decaying fall leaves. Under one 
of them a babushka in a tatty beret stood hawking an old doll. Forty 
whole rubles she was asking. Unlike the usual bald, grinning Soviet toy 
babies, this doll had flaxen hair, a frayed velvet dress, and melancholy 
eyes out of a tragic Hans Christian Andersen tale. In late November 
Naum relented; at home Mom inhaled the doll’s musty mystery. The 
next morning Naum went away on a trip. 

December brought soft, flaky snowfalls, the resinous aroma of fir 
trees, and invasions of gruff out-of-towners in stores. New Year’s fes- 
tivities were still new to Soviets. Some simply hung their trees with wal- 
nuts in tinfoil; Liza propped a bright Kremlin star on top of their tree 
and bought presents for Larisa and Yulia. Mom only wanted things for 
her doll. There was no news from Naum, and Liza’s face had assumed 
a grim, absent expression. Silently she stood in lines for toy wash- 
boards and miniature versions of the dinner sets depicted in Mikoyan’s 
parsley-green cookbook. 

Every day Mom consulted the cookbook for dollhouse decora- 
tion. Every day Liza perused its pages, churning out panfuls of kotleti 
and trays of cottage cheese korzhiki (biscuits). Uncharacteristically, she 
baked elaborate dried apricot pies — listening intently to the rattle of 
the approaching elevator. But it was usually Dora or the composers next 


79JOs: Thank You, Comrade Stalin, for Our Happy Childhood 

door. Ninka and the Pokrass children ate most of the pies— their cheer- 
ful chewing filling Mom’s heart with toska. 

For New Year’s Eve Liza draped a brand-new tablecloth over the 
table. It was deep red like a theater curtain, as plush as a teddy bear’s 
cheek. Naum didn’t come home to admire it. The Sovetskoye cham- 
pagne stood unopened as fireworks exploded above the Kremlin clock. 

“Nichevo, mozhet nichevo.” (Nothing, maybe it’s nothing.) Their neigh- 
bor Dora had been whispering this lately to Liza while Mom hid under 
the table chewing on the tablecloth tassels. 

“ Nichevo , nichevo ,” Mom whispered to her doll, licking tears off her 
face. The doll’s eyes said that she understood everything: the worm 
of despair in Mom’s stomach, the mystery of her father’s absence, her 
gnawing suspicion that the Radiant Future was passing them by. Strok- 
ing and braiding the doll’s flaxen hair, Mom desperately wanted at least 
to make her silent friend’s life happy, abundant, and cheerful. She had 
an inspiration. With Liza out of sight, she reached for her scissors. The 
first piece of tablecloth she cut off didn’t fit, so she kept cutting more: 
for the doll’s tablecloth, for her toy bedspread. When Mom was done 
the doll’s house was draped in red velvet, golden tassels lining its floor. 

Seeing Mom’s handiwork, Liza flailed a dishrag at her, but without 
her usual vigor. That day, and for days after, she kept looking for the key 
to Naum’s desk. She was trying to decide if now was the time to read 
Larisa and Yulia the letter he had written and locked in a drawer. The 
letter that urged his children to love him, love their mother, and love 
their Rodina — no matter what might suddenly have happened to him. 




o n the weekend of June 21, 1941, in honor of the official arrival of 
summer, Liza finally switched from listless hot winter borscht to the 
chilled summer version. Tangy and sweet, the soup was alive with 
the crunch and vitality of the season’s first cucumbers and radishes. 
Following a short cold spell, Saturday’s weather was heartbreakingly 
lovely. Sun beamed on the lipstick-red tulips and dressy white lilies at 
the Pushkin Square flower beds; petunias scented the Boulevard Ring. 
Girls in their light graduation dresses floated past couples embracing on 
the Moskva River embankment. Summer plans, stolen kisses, blue and 
white cans of Mikoyan’s condensed milk packed for the dacha. Even the 
babushkas who hawked fizzy water with cherry syrup at parks somehow 
looked decades younger. The happiness in the air was palpable, stirring. 
Or so it seemed to my mother on her Saturday stroll with Yulia and 
their father. 

Naum was back with them— for a brief while at least. Ever since 
his alarming disappearance in 1939 . when Liza thought him arrested 
or dead, his absences had gotten more prolonged and frequent. One 
morning Liza sat on the narrow cot that Mom shared with Yulia and 
explained Papa’s job. 

“Soviet spy?” Mom squealed with glee. 

“Nyet, nyet! Razvedchik (intelligence worker).” 



That too sounded thrilling. To protect their dad’s secrets from en- 
emies of the people, Mom and Yulia took to stealthily eating his papers. 
They’d tear them into confetti, soak them in milk, and dutifully chew, 
handful by handful. This felt heroic— until Naum threw a fit after they 
swallowed his sherkassa (savings bank) documents. 

The girls now learned to put the names of foreign countries to his 
absences; they learned where their presents were coming from. The 
Russo-Finnish war of that winter in 1940— a hapless bloodbath that 
sent Russians home badly mauled but with a strategic chunk of the 
chilly Ladoga Lake— yielded Larisa and Yulia a festive tin box of Finn- 
ish butter cookies. Bright yellow neck scarves of fine flimsy cotton were 
the girls’ trophies from the ugly Soviet occupation of Estonia in July of 
1940. From Naum’s intelligence missions in Stockholm came sky-blue 
princess coats with fur trim. Scandinavia and the Baltic were Naum’s 
specialties. Fie never mentioned the ugliness. 

There were six of them now sharing two communal rooms in the 
house of composers. Liza’s widowed dad from Odessa was living with 
them, snoring in the living room where the girls slept. Dedushka Yankel 
was obliging and doleful. A retired old Jewish communist shock-worker 
(pre-Stakhanovite uberlaborer), he hated the Talmud and detested the 
Bible. Mom liked to tug at the wispy clumps of hair on his temples as 
he sat in the kitchen copying The Short Course of the History of the All-Union 
Communist Party into his notebook over and over and over. He knew it by 
heart, Stalin’s Party catechism. 

Sashka, their new baby brother, was noisier. Liza had him in May 
while Naum was in Sweden, and her heart nearly broke in the mater- 
nity ward when she saw the nurse carry a huge bouquet of pink roses 
to some other lucky new mamochka. “For you,” said the nurse, smiling. 
“Look out the window.” Below, Naum waved and grinned. Since the 
baby was born he hadn’t left Moscow. 

Sashka wasn’t crying and Dedushka wasn’t snoring late on Saturday, 
June 21. Still, Mom couldn’t sleep. Perhaps she was overexcited at the 
prospect of seeing the famous chimp Mickey at the Moscow Circus the 
next day. Or maybe it was the thunderstorm that broke the still, airless 
sky after ten. Waking up often from her uneasy slumber. Mom noticed 


J940S: Of Bullets and Bread 

Naum in the room, crouched by his Latvian VEF shortwave radio. The 
radio’s flashing green light and the non-Russian voices —Hello . . . Bee Bee 
See— finally lulled my mother to sleep. 

Naum had his ear to the radio, fists clenched. Damn VEF! Were it not 
for the sleeping girls he’d have smashed it to pieces. It was shortly after 
dawn on Sunday. A static-crackly foreign voice had announced what 
he and his superiors had been warning about for months with des- 
perate near certainty. His small suitcase had been packed for a week. 
Why wasn’t headquarters calling? Why did he have to crouch by the 
whining, buzzing radio for information when intelligence had been so 
overwhelming, when he himself had reported menacing activity at the 
new Soviet-Baltic border for more than a year? Top-level defense pro- 
fessionals had been aghast at the TASS news agency statement of June 
14, which dismissed as base rumor the possibility of attack by Rus- 
sia’s Non- Aggression Treaty cosigner— Nazi Germany. But the direc- 
tive for the TASS pronouncement had come from the Vozhd (Leader) 
himself. Certain top commanders left for vacations; others went to the 

Meanwhile, early the previous evening, a small, somber group had 
gathered nervously in Stalin’s Kremlin office. Among those present was 
Naum’s uberboss, naval commissar Admiral Kuznetsov. He’d brought 
along Captain Mikhail Vorontsov, a longtime acquaintance of Grand- 
dad’s (and his direct boss some months later). Vorontsov had just landed 
from Berlin, where he was Soviet naval attache. Hitler would invade at 
any hour, he warned. Stalin had been hearing these kinds of detailed 
alarms for months. He rejected them with contempt, even fury. Tell- 
ingly, the meeting started without his new chief of military staff. Gen- 
eral Georgy Zhukov. 

The signs, however, were too ominous to dismiss. The Dictator was 
noticeably agitated. General Zhukov rang at around eight p.m. from 
the defense commissariat: a German defector had crossed the border to 
warn that the attack would start at dawn. After midnight he rang again: 
another defector said likewise. Stalin grudgingly allowed a High Alert 



to be issued— with the bewildering caution not to respond to German 
“provocations.” He also ordered the latest defector shot as a disinformer. 

At his dacha the Leader, an insomniac usually, must have slept 
deeply that night. Because Zhukov was kept waiting on the line for a 
full three minutes when he telephoned just after dawn. 

“The Germans are bombing our cities!” Zhukov announced. 

Heavy breathing on the other end of the line. 

“Do you understand what I’m saying?” asked Zhukov. 

Upon returning to the Kremlin, Stalin appeared subdued, even de- 
pressed, his pockmarked face haggard. Refusing to address the nation 
himself, he delegated it to Molotov, who was then foreign commissar 
and stuttered badly. Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa, the largest invasion 
in the history of warfare, comprising more than three million German 
troops augmented by Axis forces, and ranging from the Baltic to the 
Black Sea, had been allowed to commence in effective surprise. 

In the early light of June 22, lying in bed with her eyes half closed, 
Larisa saw her father pull her mother to his chest with a force she’d 
never witnessed before. The embrace— desperate, carnal— told her that 
the circus was off even before Naum’s one-word announcement: war 

At midday they all stood among panicked crowds under the black, 
saucer-shaped public loudspeakers. 

“Citizens of the Soviet Union! . . . Today, at four a.m German 

troops . . . have attacked our, um um, country . . . despite ... a treaty of 
non-aggression . . .” 

Mercifully, Comrade Molotov didn’t stutter as much as usual. But 
his halting speech was that of a clerk struggling through an arcane doc- 
ument. “Our cause is just. The enemy will be beaten,” concluded the 
world’s worst public speaker. 

“What does perfidious mean?” asked children all over Moscow. What 
happened to Stalin? wondered their parents, joining the stampedes for 
salt and matches at stores. 

At two p.m. that afternoon, amid the wrenching chaos of departures 



7 94 Os: Of Bullets and Bread 

at the Leningradsky railway station, Mother couldn t help but admire 
Naum’s spiffy gray civilian suit. 

“Please, please, take off that hat!” Liza yelled, running after his 
train. “It makes you look Jewish — the Germans will kill you. 

The Father of all Nations finally spoke on July 3. 

“Comrades! Citizens! Brothers and sisters! I am addressing you, my 

It was a moving speech. The brothers and sisters line went down in 
history as possibly the only time Stalin called out to Russians in such 
an un-godlike familial fashion. Stalin had been even less godlike in pri- 
vate, though that was not known until years after his death. 

“Lenin left us a great legacy and we shitted it away, the Vozhd had 
blurted dismally a few days before his speech, after a frantic session at 
the defense commissariat where the ruthless General Zhukov had fled 
the room sobbing. 

Indeed. By the time Stalin spoke to the nation, the Germans had 
swept some four hundred miles into Soviet territory along three fronts. 
By late October they counted three million Russian POWs. The tidal 
roar of the Wehrmacht with its onrushing Panzer tanks, Luftwaffe 
overhead, and SS rear guard would not begin to be turned until Stalin- 
grad, a year and a half away. 

After Naum’s departure, though, life in Moscow seemed to Mom 
almost normal. Except that it wasn’t. People carried home masks resem- 
bling sinister elephant trunks. Women with red swollen eyes clutched 
the hands of their husbands and sons all the way to conscription points. 
Dedushka Yankel glued X-shaped strips of tape on the windows and 
covered them with dark curtains, as officially required. The wails of the 
air raid sirens awoke in Mom the familiar sensations of alarm and toska, 
but now with an edge of adrenaline. Strakh (fear) was more tolerable 
somehow than tosku. Falling asleep fully clothed, a rucksack packed with 
water and food by her bed for the frantic run to the bomb shelter— it 
was terrifying and just a little bit thrilling. 

In the dark, freshly plastered shelter beneath the house of compos- 
ers, familiar faces were fewer with each air raid. Loudspeakers urged 



remaining Muscovites to evacuate. “Nonsense,” Liza kept murmuring. 
“Haven’t they said the war’s almost over? Why go?” Following one par- 
ticularly long mid-August night on the concrete shelter floor, they came 
back to the house. Liza opened the curtains. Her hollow scream still 
rings in Mother’s ears after seventy years. 

The entire panorama of shingled Moscow roofs Mom so loved stood 
in flames in the gray morning light. 

The telephone call came at seven a.m. The evacuation riverboat 
was leaving that day. Someone from Naum’s headquarters could collect 
them in a couple of hours. 

Liza stood in the living room, lost. Scattered around her were the 
cotton parcels and pillowcases she’d been distractedly stuffing. She was 
five feet tall, as thin as a teenager at thirty-one years of age, still ex- 
hausted from childbirth, fragile and indecisive by nature. 

Sergei’s baritone jolted her out of her stupor. He was their driver. 
Everything ready? One glance at Liza’s flimsy parcels sent him into a 
tornado of packing. 

“Your winter coats. Where are they?” 

“Winter? Please, the war will be over by then!” 

“Whose clothes are these?” 

“My husband’s— but don’t touch them. He doesn’t need them— he’s 

Sergei now swung open the sunduk in the hallway. It was a light- 
weight blue trunk that had once belonged to an aunt who’d fled long 
ago to America, where she ran a chicken farm. It still held her stuff. 
The smell of mothballs wafted into the air as Sergei wrenched out Aunt 
Claras old petticoats and filled the blue sunduk with Naum’s dandyish 
suits, his dazzling white shirts, and the ties he wore on his intelligence 
missions. Dedushka’s old sheepskin coat. Liza’s fuzzy Orenburg shawl. 
The girls’ valenki boots. Done packing, Sergei picked up both girls at 
once and tickled them with his breath. He had a wide smile and hon- 
est Slavic blue eyes. He also had a raging case of TB he’d pass on to the 

The building manager came to seal off the apartment per regu- 


I940s: Of Bullets and Bread 

lations. Approaching the riverboat station, Liza screamed: they’d for- 
gotten little Sashka. Sergei raced back to the house while the family 
waited on board, sick with anxiety. Smiling broadly, Sergei made it back 
with the baby. 

★ ★ ★ 

“But is he lucky?” Napoleon famously asked when promoting a general. 

The good fortune of Naum Solomonovich Frumkin, my grandfa- 
ther, was the stuff of family lore. Fie was, in that regard, a Bonapartian 
whiz. “Dedushka,” my older cousin Masha would plead, tugging at the 
three gold stars on his old uniform shoulder boards, “tell how your car 
was bombed and you escaped without even a scratch!” Or she’d ask to 
hear about the time when he had been adrift in freezing waters, hanging 
on for life — to a mine. Which “forgot” to explode! 

Everyone’s favorite was the day they finally came to arrest him. True 
to his luck, Naum was away, sick in the hospital. Oh, and the date was 
March 5, 1953. The day Stalin died. The beginning of the end of the 

After joining the RKKA (Workers and Peasants Red Army) in 
1921, Granddad went into intelligence in 1931. For the two prewar 
years he had a perilous job recruiting and coordinating agents abroad. 
Yet this international cloak-and-dagger — and later even the hazards 
of combat— seemed to Naum like afternoons in the park compared 
to the perils from within. Between 1937 and 1941, purges utterly rav- 
aged the leadership of the Soviet military and in particular of GRU, 
its intelligence branch. GRU’s directorship became a blood-soaked 
revolving door; five of its chiefs were executed in the four years lead- 
ing up to Hitler’s attack. A domino effect then took down the heads 
of departments and branches, liquidating the top GRU cadres almost 

In this harrowing, half-paralyzed environment, Naum in 1939 be- 
came a section head himself, supervising spies for the naval commissar- 
iat in Moscow. In a sense, my fortunate grandfather was a beneficiary of 



the chistki (cleansings), swiftly moving up the career ladder from fleet to 
fleet, filling the empty desks of the purged. But he was also a target, his 
own arrest lurking outside every window. “I developed eyes in the back 
of my head,” Naum the retired spy would tell anyone willing to listen. 
Tailed by the NKVD (secret police) almost continuously, he perfected 
the art of vanishing into courtyards, of jumping onto fast-moving trol- 
leys. He knew the drill: training spies was part of his job. When the 
stress got to him, he fantasized about wheeling on his shadowers, de- 
manding to their faces: “Either arrest me or stop following me!” 

My grandfather was a vain man. He esteemed his power to charm. 
To explain his improbable survival, he often mentioned an NKVD 
comrade called Georgadze, the officer in charge of signing arrest war- 
rants for lieutenant colonels (each rank was assigned its own man, ac- 
cording to Naum). Apparently, this Georgadze fell under Granddad’s 
spell at a gathering. Naum imagined Georgadze deliberately overlooked 
or “misplaced” his arrest papers. Mainly, though, Granddad would 
shrug. Gospozha udacha , Lady Luck—she was quite charmed by him too. 

Stalin's intelligence decimations had left the Red Army hierarchy 
“without eyes and ears,” as one insider put it, on the eve of war. But here 
was the paradox: by June 22 the Vozhd had been flooded with ongoing, 
extremely precise details of the looming Nazi attack. A major font of 
these warnings — all scoffed at by Stalin — was someone whom Naum, 
the pro charmer, never could stop talking about. 

Meet playboy Richard Sorge (code name Ramzai): philanderer, 
drunkard, and, in the words of John le Carre, “the spy to end spies.” 
“The most formidable spy in history,” agreed Ian Fleming. “Unwider- 
stehliche” (irresistible), marveled one of his main dupes, the German 
ambassador to Japan. With his cover as a Nazi journalist in Tokyo 
starting in 1933, the half-German, half-Russian Sorge and his ring 
of false-front cohorts steadily passed top-level Japanese and German 
secrets to GRU headquarters in Moscow. (Larisa particularly recalls 
Japan specialists as guests at their apartment in 1939 and 1940.) In- 
credibly, Sorge ’s detailed alarms about the exact onset of Operation 
Barbarossa, up to its very preceding hours, only roused Stalin’s scorn. 
“A shit,” the Vozhd dismissed him, according to one commentator, 


7 94 Os.* Of Bullets and Bread 

“who has set himself up with some small factories and brothels in 

Stalin was even less cordial to another accurate warning, from code 
name Starshina at the Nazi Air Ministry less than a week before Hit- 
ler’s onslaught. This “source,” sneered the Great Strategist of the Revo- 
lution, signaling contempt with quotation marks, should be sent to his 
fucking mother. 

Why the delusional ignorance, the vitriol? Stalin’s rejection of the in- 
telligence continues to foment countless theories among historians, both 
Western and Russian. But it deserves noting that Hitler orchestrated a 
disinformation campaign fine-tuned to Stalin’s suspicions of capitalist 
Britain and Churchill, and to the Vozhd’s faith that Germany would never 
attack during hostilities with England — the supposed German dread of a 
two-front war. In May 1941 Hitler even wrote a very nice personal letter 
to Stalin to calm his unease, pledging “his word as a foreign leader.” He 
went so far as to ask Stalin not to give in to any border provocations by un- 
ruly Nazi generals! As Solzhenitsyn later suggested, the ogre of the Krem- 
lin, who trusted no one, somehow trusted the monster of Berchtesgaden. 

In his memoirs General Zhukov later sensationally (and rather im- 
probably) asserted that the defense commissariat never saw the crucial 
bulletins Stalin received from Soviet foreign spies. As for Sorge, who 
had stayed away from Russia, fearing the purges, he was unmasked and 
arrested in Tokyo in the fall of 1941. The Japanese wanted to exchange 
him, but Stalin replied he’d never heard of him. Sorge was hanged in 
1944, on the holiday of the October Revolution. He had the ultimate 
lousy luck: he depended on Stalin. 

For his part, Naum always claimed that he saw Sorge ’s urgent alerts. 

Still, this hardly prepared him for what was about to unfold in the 

On the morning of June 22, when Grandma ran waving after his train, 
Naum was bound for Tallinn, the Estonian capital. The Baltic Fleet 
headquarters had moved there the previous summer after the USSR 
occupied the three Baltic states. 



Like stranded ducks, the Baltic ports almost immediately began 
falling to the German onslaught. 

By late August the Nazis were closing on Tallinn. The Baltic Fleet 
under Naums old boss Admiral Tributs was ordered, frantically and at 
the last minute, to evacuate through the Gulf of Finland to Kronstadt 
near Leningrad, the fleet’s former traditional base. Red Army units 
and civilians were packed aboard. Tallinn often gets called the Soviet 
Dunkirk. Except it was an all-out disaster-one of the gravest naval 
fiascos in warfare history. Despite being the fleet’s intelligence chief, 
Naum supervised a ship’s scuttling under shellfire to block Tallinn’s 
harbor as the residue of Soviet smoke screens drifted murkily overhead. 
Fie was one of the last out. Some two hundred Russian vessels tried to 
run a 150-nautical'mile gauntlet through heavily mined waters, with 
no air protection against German and Finnish onslaughts. The result 
was apocalyptic. The waves resounded with explosions and Russian 
screams, with desperate choruses of “The Internationale” and the gun 
flashes of suicides as ships sank. More than sixty Soviet vessels were 
lost, and at least 12,000 people drowned. Naum made it to Kronstadt 
with only four other survivors from his scuttling mission. LLis own luck 
had held, but he was badly shaken. 

By fall, the juggernaut of Operation Barbarossa pounded at Len- 
ingrad’s gates. On September 8, Shlisselburg, a strategically important 
town nearby on Lake Ladoga, fell to the Germans. Russia’s second- 
largest city was now completely cut off by land: no transport, no provi- 
sions, no fuel. It was the start of blokada , the Siege of Leningrad, which 
would last a mythic nine hundred days. Stalin was furious. Ffe’d only 
learned the Shlisselburg news from a German communique; Mar- 
shal Kliment (Klim) Voroshilov, Leningrad’s bumbling commander, 
had been too scared to tell him. The Vozhd rushed General Zhukov 
north with a terse note for Voroshilov: he was fired. Zhukov was taking 
over. Klim bade stoic farewells to his aides, assuming he would be shot. 
(Somehow he wasn’t.) 

On September 22 Naum stood in Zhukov’s office at the Smolny 
in Leningrad. The general seemed even more abrupt and severe than 


794 Os. - Of Bullets and Bread 

usual, pacing with his arm behind his back. A bold, brutal campaigner, 
Georgy Konstantinovich was notoriously callous with the lives of his 
men. He cleared minefields by sending troops attacking across them. 
The cheapness of Russian blood fueled the future marshal s combat 

Zhukov ordered Naum to lead an amphibious reconnaissance mis- 
sion as part of a counterattack on Shlisselburg, to try to break the Nazi 
encirclement. Immediately. 

Naum quickly calculated. Zero time for preparations. Boats for the 
counterattack in wretched shape. Number of men: grossly inadequate. 
His troops were to include 125 naval school cadets— mere kids. Grand' 
dad had recently delivered an address to them. He remembered one 
eager boy: dark-haired, small, with pensive eyes and crooked teeth, a 
pimply face. 

Despite his survival instinct, almost despite himself, Naum blurted 
out his objections. 

A bolt of rage familiar to everyone under Zhukov’s command 
flashed in the general’s eyes. His bullmastiff jaw tightened. 

“We’ll execute you for this,” Zhukov snarled quietly. “You have your 

Orders were orders, even if suicidal. 

High winds on Lake Ladoga postponed the counterattack the 
first night. The second night three boats overturned, drowning two 
men, and the operation was aborted. The main force’s commander 
was arrested on the spot and sent to the gulag. The third night Naum 
and his scouting party were able to land, though the main force still 
couldn’t. Granddad and his men had to wade two kilometers through 
chest'high, ice-cold water. With their radio soaked, they were unable 
to relay reconnaissance but managed some sabotage before fighting 
their way back to Soviet lines the following night, losing four men. 

The main assault force was ordered to try yet again the day after. It 
was obliterated in the shallows by the Germans. 

But Russian blood was cheap; that was the ongoing lesson from 
Zhukov, who would be anointed the great architect of the Soviet victory 



to come, then brutally demoted by Stalin (saved from arrest by a heart 
attack), repromoted by Khrushchev, then demoted again. 

Back from his mission, N aum lay semiconscious, wheezing and grunting. 
The acute pneumonia he’d contracted from his forty-eight drenched 
hours could finish him, he knew, here in this anonymous hospital bed. 
Or he could perish in another “meat-grinder” like Shlisselburg— the 
best death, since his kids would remember him as a hero. Zhukov’s fir- 
ing squad was the most agonizing scenario. Families of “enemies of the 
people” were usually exiled, or worse; their children grew up in orphan- 
ages, branding their fathers as betrayers of Homeland. This last possi- 
bility deprived Naum of sleep. It pierced like a red-hot iron. For several 
years now he’d been writing to his kids almost daily, letters composed 
mostly in his head, but some actually written and left in locked drawers. 

Only one of those letters was ever opened in front of Larisa, Yulia, 
and Sashka. Three sentences jabbed out there on that hospital bed: 
“Liza, teach the children to throw grenades. Make sure they remember their papa. He 
loved them so.” 

★ ★ ★ 

These lines reached Liza at the end of 1941 in a seven-hundred-square- 
foot room on the second floor of a crumbling warehouse. She, the chil- 
dren, and Dedushka Yankel shared the room with six other families 
evacuated from Moscow. The September journey, during which Nazi 
Messerschmitt fighters circled low over their riverboat, had brought 
them here, to the relative safety of Ulyanovsk, an old Volga town with 
muddy streets and folkloric carved wooden shutters. 

“Look, look, Jews!” pale-blond street kids greeted them upon arrival. 

“We are not Jews,” Mother corrected them. “We are from Moscow.” 

Now, several months into their stay, Liza had barely unpacked Aunt 
Clara’s blue sunduk. Why bother? Peace, she still believed, would surely 
come any day. She attended to their makeshift existence while Dedushka 


?940s: Of Bullets and Bread 

Yankel dug trenches— and sometimes potatoes— outside the city, both 
his fingers and the potatoes harder and blacker as the earth froze. The 
five of them slept and did most of their living on two striped mattresses 
pushed together on the room’s cement floor. Beyond the flimsy curtain 
partition a sound tormented them around the clock: the piercing shriek 
of a toddler slightly older than Sashka. The boy was barely nursed, 
barely touched by Katya, his mother, who disappeared all day to return 
after midnight with nylon negligee and Coty perfume. “Prostitutka and 
black marketeer” everyone in the room said, taking turns holding and 
rocking the inconsolable child, who wouldn’t eat. 

Katya wasn’t home when the boy stopped crying. The next day 
Larisa watched in solemn exultation as a small sheet-wrapped bundle 
was carried out the door. She knew exactly what had happened: death 
had been her constant obsession ever since she’d read about a little fro- 
zen match girl in a Hans Christian Andersen tale. 

Death. It was in the wail of Dasha their neighbor when she unfolded 
the triangular letter from the front, the official notification known as a 
pokhoronka, or funeral letter. Death came every day from the radio where 
the Voice announced it, in numbers so catastrophic, they baffled a child 
who could barely count over one hundred. 

“Vnimaniye, govorit Moskva!” (Attention, Moscow speaking!) the Voice 
always began. The dramatic, sonorous baritone that awed and hypno- 
tized not just my mother but the whole country belonged to Yuri Levi- 
tan, a bespectacled Jewish tailor’s son. Russia’s top radio man delivered 
most of his broadcasts— some 60,000 throughout the war— not from 
Moscow but from cities hundreds of miles away, to which radio staff 
had been evacuated. Such was Levitan’s power, Hitler marked him as a 
personal enemy. A whopping 250,000 reichsmarks was offered for his 

Reading aloud soldiers’ letters home, the Voice conjured tender, 
intimate chords. Reporting the fall of each new city as the Germans 
advanced, it turned slow and grave, chanting out and accenting each 
syllable. Go-vo-rit Mos-kva. 

More frightening still was a song on the radio. “Arise, our vast country. 



Arise to mortal battle. With dark fascist forces, with the accursed horde!” After a 
blood-chilling staccato opening, the vast choral refrain gathered force 
and crescendoed in a massive wave of sheer terror. 

The song was playing when Liza opened Naum’s letter from the 
Baltic, hand-delivered by his red-haired young adjutant, Kolya. 

“Liza, teach the children to throw grenades . . .” 

There was a parcel as well, of raisins and rock-hard prunes for the 
kids. “Naum, he’s fine . . .” Kolya assured them. The letter’s jolting past 
tense and Kolya’s averted gaze told Liza otherwise. And there was 
something else. A paper slipped out of the parcel. Kolya leapt to tear it 
up and throw it in the trash. Liza spent half the night assembling the 
pieces into a photo of a brunette in a nurse’s cap. To my dear Naum, read 
the inscription. And that’s how my petite grandmother, who was terri- 
fied even of mice, decided to leave the children with Dedushka and start 
north, north toward besieged Leningrad— to claim her husband. 

Heading up past Moscow, Liza was already pushing her own version 
of Naum’s improbable luck. Late for a military chopper, she could only 
watch helplessly as it took off— and exploded in the air, struck by a bomb. 
A train carried her now through snowy wastes in the direction of Len- 
ingrad. The entire way a general held Liza’s hand, crying. She reminded 
him of his daughter, who’d just starved to death in the Siege. The train 
reached Kobona, a village on the span of Lake Lagoda’s frigid south- 
eastern shore still in Russian hands. A makeshift hospital had been 
set up for evacuees from Peter the Great’s imperial city, which Hitler 
meant to raze to the ground. The emaciated arrivals, mostly women 
and children, were given half a liter of warm water and spoonfuls of 
gruel. Some ate and instantly died, their dystrophied bodies unable to 
handle the food. I can only imagine my grandmother confronting all 
this with her characteristic half daze, half denial. In the years to come, 
she would rarely discuss her own feelings, modestly deferring instead to 
the collective narrative of the Leningrad tragedy. 

The lone route in and out of blockaded Leningrad lay across twenty 
perilous miles of windswept snow-covered lake ice to the opposite 


J940s: Of Bullets and Bread 

shore — through enemy fire. This was the legendary Doroga Zhizni, the 
Road of Life, a route desperately improvised by authorities and meteo- 
rologists in the second month of the Siege as temperatures sank and the 
lake froze over. This first terrible winter — the coldest in decades — and 
the two following, trucks laboring over the Road of Life carried the 
only supplies into a city where rations fell to four ounces of ersatz bread 
a day, and vintage parquet floors and precious rare books were burned 
as fuel in the minus-thirty-degree cold. The besieged ate sweetened soil 
around a sugar warehouse bombed by the Germans, and papier-mache 
bookbinding, even jelly made out of softened carpenter glue — not to 
mention far more gruesome stuff. More than fifty thousand people per- 
ished in December 1941 alone. 

On their two daily runs along the Road of Life, exhausted drivers 
fought sleep by hanging a metal pot from the cab ceiling, which rattled 
and hit them on the head. German shells and bombs fell constantly. 
Often the ice caved in. Liza rode on a truck on top of a flour sack. In the 
open back, wind-whipped snow, like an icy sandstorm, lashed her face. 

All my grandmother possessed was a special pass and an official let- 
ter asking for assistance. Reaching besieged, frozen Leningrad at last, 
she had no idea how or where to find Naum. At city naval headquarters, 
harried men in uniform kept shrugging, waving her off. 

Naum Solomonovich Frumkin? Baltic intelligence chief? Could be 

Finally the desperation in Liza’s gray eyes moved a staffer to suggest 
she try Baltic Fleet headquarters at Kronstadt— nineteen miles away, in 
the Gulf of Finland. As it happened, a naval glisser, an ice-gliding hover- 
craft, was going there shortly. In fact a driver was about to take someone 
to the glisser that very minute. If Liza rushed . . . 

My grandmother made the hovercraft, too weak and shaken to 
even hope. Someone brought her to the onboard cafeteria to scrounge 
for something to eat. A group of naval commanders was sitting at a 
table. And among them, who else? Naum. Smiling (of course), smell- 
ing of cologne. Lucky as ever, he had survived pneumonia and then 
escaped Zhukov’s execution threat by reporting the Shlisselburg 
mission to Voroshilov, who still retained a seat on the Soviet High 



Command— going around Zhukov, essentially. Instead of a firing 
squad, Naum got a medal. 

would yell years later. “There I was, scratched up, starving, braids fly- 
ing . . . and there he is, flashing his idiotic white teeth at me!” 

“Lizochka!” Granddad famously greeted my grandma. “And what 
brings you here?” 

★ ★ ★ 

The tale of finding Naum on the glisser has always been among my 
grandmother’s wartime chestnuts. My cousin Masha and I preferred 
the one about Liza returning to the family in Ulyanovsk and finding 
Larisa burning with scarlet fever. Every evening Grandma would trudge 
miles through the snow to the hospital carrying potato peel pancakes 
for Larochka. Until one night, caught in a blizzard, she fell through a 
snow slope into a trench and couldn’t climb out. 

“I dozed half frozen inside the trench, leaning on some hardened 
tree trunks,” she’d tell us repeatedly. “At the morning's first light I real- 
ized that those ‘tree trunks’ were . . .” 

Amputated arms and legs! Cousin Masha and I would squeal the punch- 
line in unison. 

Of her monthlong hospital stay Mother herself remembers only 
the pancakes. Indeed, in her mind food dominates all other wartime 
recollections. For instance, the ration during her first school year in 
Ulyanovsk. Lunch was at 11:15 during grand recess. From a smudgy zinc 
tray children were allotted one bublik and one podushechka each. Bublik: a 
flimsy chewy bagel scattered with poppy seeds. Podushechka (little pil- 
low): a sugar-coated pebble, green, blue, or pink, the size of a fingernail, 
with a center of jam. Eating them together was a ritual, a sacrament 
really. You stuck the candy under your tongue and sat without breath- 
ing as a pool of sweetened saliva collected on the floor of your mouth 
A cautious oral maneuvering delivered a stronger sweet rush and the 
sublime coarseness of sugar grains against the tip of your tongue. Dizzy 


J940S: Of Bullets and Bread 

with desire you pressed the bublik hard against your face and inhaled for 
a while. Then you spat out the candy into your hand and took the first 
careful bite of the bublik; it tasted like the greatest of pastries in your 
candy-sweet mouth. A bite of bublik, a lick of podushechka. The pleasure 
had to last the entire fifteen minutes of recess. The hardest part was 
putting off the rapturous moment when the surface of the podushechka 
cracked and jam began to ooze from inside. Some stoic classmates man- 
aged to spit out the half-eaten candy for younger siblings. Mom wasn’t 
one of them. 

My mother has impeccable manners, is ladylike in every respect. But 
to this day she eats like a starved wolf, a war survivor gobbling down her 
plate of food before other people at table have even touched their forks. 
Sometimes at posh restaurants I’m embarrassed by how she eats — then 
ashamed at myself for my shame. “Mom, really, they say chewing prop- 
erly is good for you,” I admonish her weakly. She usually glares. “What 
do you know?” she retorts. 

From her I do know that civilians distilled survival into one word: 
kartochki. They were printed on one large sheet of paper, these ration 
cards, a month’s worth of square coupons with an official stamp, the 
recipient’s name and signature, and a stern warning — CARDS NOT 
REPLACEABLE — because corruption and counterfeiting ran rampant. 
Lost your kartochki> Good luck surviving. 

At seven years of age my mother was a kartochki veteran. She was 
the one dispatched to trade them at stores while Dedushka Yankel dug 
his trenches and Liza and Yulia minded baby Sashka. The most crucial 
kartochki were for khleb (bread). One morning long before opening time 
Larisa joined hundreds of puffy-eyed, red-nosed people outside the 
bakery door. She tried not to gulp and swallow cold air too hard when 
the bread truck arrived and two men carted the aromatic, thick-crusted 
dark bricks inside. Behind the counter severe women in splotchy blue 
robes over shapeless padded coats weighed each ration of bread to the 
last milligram. They stomped their feet to keep warm and wore finger- 
less gloves so they could easily snip off the right coupon. 

As her turn in the line neared, Mom felt a slight panic. Back in the 



house a power outage had prevented her from sorting through the ra- 
tion books. It was the first of the month. All the coupon sheets — for 
grain, sugar, bread, meat for each family member — sat folded in the 
pocket of the blue princess coat Naum had brought from Sweden. Now 
she could barely feel them there; she couldn’t even feel her own hands 
from the cold. 

Why did she put all the cards on the counter when her turn came? 
But how else to sift through the rationing sheets with people behind 
pushing and barking? Why panic so completely, so utterly at the in- 
vasion of arms? Arms, hands, mittens and gloves, smelly coat armpits, 
anxious breath. Fingers swarming the counter like tentacles — gnarled, 
blackened digits; gaunt fingers with white anemic nails; red swollen 
fingers. The kartochki were gone from the counter. The saleslady gave a 
bleak grin and a wag of a nail-bitten finger. 

Standing outside the bread store, Mother imagined what she’d al- 
ways imagined ever since she remembered imagining anything. She saw 
Naum coming back home. He’d be dressed in the gray civilian suit he 
wore at the station for Leningrad; she could almost smell the lavanda co- 
logne on his cap. “Lizochka, I’m home!” he would shout, peering at the 
thin, shoddy figures in the warehouse room. Then he'd spy them. Arms 
open, he’d rush over. And what would he find? Liza, Dedushka, and 
Sashka — and Larisa and Yulia, pale and majestically beautiful in their 
identical fur-trimmed princess coats. All silent and motionless on their 
striped mattress, like Katya’s small baby. Dead, all of them. 

Dead is what happened to people who lost their rationing cards on 
the first of the month. Dead from golod (starvation), from thirty whole 
days without kasha or bread or the tiny ration of milk for the baby. 
Would Naum wail like Dasha their neighbor did when she opened her 
funeral letter? Or would he find a new wife, one who didn’t shriek and 
convulse in hysterics like Liza surely would when Larisa came home 
without bread and without rationing cards. 

Going home wasn’t an option. And so Mother went to the only place 
in the city where electricity always shone brightly and where a sprit of 
cozy, prosperous happiness wafted through every beautiful room. She 


I940S; Of Bullets and Bread 

went there often, to that traditional wooden two-story house up the 
street from their warehouse. She came to escape from the sight of her 
pitiful dedushka peeling warty potatoes, from the catastrophic Voice on 
the radio. The house was untouched by all this. Here the mother, Maria 
Alexandrovna, never yelled at her children. She played the grand piano 
while everyone had tea from a samovar in the living room. There were 
six kids in the house, but the apple of everyone’s eye was a boy called 
Volodya. Larisa liked to examine his baby picture, a brim of blond curls 
fringing his high, stubborn forehead. As a student Volodya had a proud, 
focused expression and a shrewd direct gaze. He got the best grades in 
his class. He never lied to his parents. He fought for justice and truth. 
Volodya’s attic bedroom with its patterned beige wallpaper was where 
Mom often sat daydreaming in the wooden chair between the boy’s 
small, neat desk and his bookshelf filled with volumes by Pushkin, 
Turgenev, and Gogol. Lucky Volodya got to sleep alone in bed, unlike 
Larisa and Yulia. He had such a nifty map of the world on his wall. The 
green lamp on his desk was so hypnotic, so peaceful. 

“Devochka, little girl, wake up, time to go.” Someone was clutching 
Larisa’s shoulder, shaking her gently. 

“The Lenin House Museum closes at five,” said the attendant. 

Back at her own house Larisa sat with her arms closed around Liza, 
stroking the sharp shoulder blade under her mother’s coarse woolen 
dress. They sat like this a long while. About the lost kartochki Liza said 
nothing. She remembered too well her own childhood loss of a ration in 
the twenties: a loaf of bread yanked out of her hand by a bearded giant 
who gorged on the entire half pound in front of her eyes. 

Salvation came from Katya, of all people, the prostitutka and black 

“Liza, you fool— you have the sundukl" 

So every few days Liza and Katya went to the black market on the 
outskirts of Ulyanovsk to trade Naum’s spiffy shirts, suits, and ties from 
inside the blue trunk. His best suit went for a sack of millet that they ate 
for the rest of the month. Millet for thin, watery breakfast gruel. Millet 
soup for lunch, flavored with herring heads. Best was millet baked for 



supper in a cast-iron pot inside the clay Russian stove in their ware- 
house. Russian war survivors fall into two categories: those who idolize 
millet and those who can’t stand it. But they all agree: millet was life. 

★ ★ ★ 

The Nazi invasion caught Stalin’s Soviet Union with yet another food 
supply crisis looming. Two years of below-average harvests had com- 
bined with the drain of the 1940 war with Finland and mammoth de- 
fense spending. But if the Soviets had scant grain reserves, they had 
even scantier strategies for handling wartime supply problems. 

The Reich, however, had a strategy: Hungerplan, the “ Hunger 
Plan.” Brainchild of corpulent, gourmandizing Hermann Goring and 
the Reich’s Food Ministry, the Hunger Plan was possibly history’s 
most sinister and cynical blueprint. The “agricultural surplus” of the 
Ukraine — which the Nazis intended to capture immediately — would 
be diverted to feed only Wehrmacht soldiers and Germany’s civilians. 
Thirty million Russians (a sixth of the population), mainly in cities, 
would be left without food. In other words: genocide by programmatic 

By late fall of 1941, Hitler controlled half of the Soviet grain acre- 
age. Crucially, however, he had not yet achieved the lightning victory 
he was so sure of. Despite staggering initial losses and blunders, the 
Soviet forces resisted. Moscow shuddered, bled, but didn’t yield. Rus- 
sian generals regrouped. Instead of swollen Ukrainian granaries and 
willing slave labor, the advancing Wehrmacht usually found only burnt 
crops and demolished farm equipment, as per Stalin’s scorched earth 
policy. (“All valuable property, including non-ferrous metals, grain, and 
fuel which cannot be withdrawn, must without fail be destroyed,” in- 
structed the Leader in early July.) 

Then winter descended and it was the Germans whose poor plan- 
ning was brutally exposed. Counting on three months of blitzkrieg at 
most, the Reich hadn’t provided warm clothes to the men at its front. 
The war lasted four long years, much of the duration bitterly cold. 

Soviet citizens got their first rationing cards in July of 1941. Average 


J940S: Of Bullets and Bread 

kartochki allotments, though symbolic and crucial, were nowhere near 
adequate for survival. Daily, it was only a bit more than a pound of 
bread; monthly, about four pounds of meat and under three pounds of 
flour or grain. Substitutions became the norm: honey for meat, rotten 
herring instead of sugar or butter. Under the slogan “All for the Front, 
All for the Victory,” supplies and rail transport were prioritized for 
the Red Army, which often fought in a state of near-starvation. How 
did Stalin’s state manage the food supply for civilians? By temporarily 
encouraging near-NEP conditions. Economic ideology was suspended 
and centralization loosened, meaning local authorities and citizens 
were left to fend for themselves. Schools and orphanages, trade unions 
and factories, all set up ad hoc green plots. Even in cities, people for- 
aged, learning to digest birch buds, clover, pine needles, and tree bark. 
At the front, chronically hungry soldiers ate not just fallen horses but 
saddles and straps— anything made of leather that could be boiled for 
hours with some aromatic twigs to stun the tar smell. 

“Naum’s clothes and Aunt Clara’s sunduk saved our lives!” Grandma 
Liza used to say, gravely nodding at the blue trunk still in her hall- 
way during my childhood. Indeed. Markets of every shade from white 
(legal) to black (illegal) were central to daily survival. With rubles al- 
most useless, food itself, bread especially, became currency. 

Diaries from the Leningrad Siege leave bone-chilling details of 
the economics of starvation. Ushanka (flap hat) = four ounces of bread; 
men’s galoshes = five ounces of bread; used samovar = two pounds of 
bread. Families hid the deaths of relatives so they could continue using 
the deceased’s monthly bread kartochki. The cost of an individual grave 
= four and a half pounds of bread plus five hundred rubles. 

Starvation was nowhere as horrifying, as extreme, as it was in Len- 
ingrad. during those nine hundred days. But for any Russian who suf- 
fered hunger contractions at all, a wartime food glossary was etched in 
his or her memory: 

Balanda: An anorexic sham “soup.” Flavored with anything from a 
horse bone to herring tail. Thickened with crushed rusks or a hand- 
ful of millet. Also a term used for gulag fodder. 



Duranda: Hard cakes of linseed or other seed hulls left over from oil 
processing. Peacetime cattlefeed. 

Kombizhir ( literally “combined fat”): Hydrogenated oil, usually rancid 
and greenish. 

Khleb (bread): Heavy loaves, claylike inside. Baked from rye flour 
stretched out with oats or duranda and/or sawdust. 

Tushonka (tinned pork): At the start of 1942 a new class of edibles 
began appearing in Russia. Vtoroy front (“second front”) was the 
nickname for American lenddease foodstuffs. The most coveted 
and iconic of Yankee delicacies was tushonka tinned in its fat in Iowa 
to exact Russian specifications. Tushonka far outlasted the war. 
Even during my childhood it was the cherished sine qua non of hik- 
ing trips and dacha summers. 

★ ★ ★ 


Of all the gifts that made their way from Naum during those days, 
one struck Mother right in the heart. It made her delirious. Not just 
because it was shokolad in war-torn Russia. Not even because it tasted far 
better than the chalky American lend-lease stuff. No. It was because of 
the dark-eyed young man on the wrapper: prodigious of nose, young and 
steely of glare, with a gloriously embossed collar. The crush Mom devel- 
oped on this chocolate hero was instant and hopeless. His swoony Ori- 
entalist name matched his fiery looks. Mohammed Reza Pa hlavi— crowned 
shah of Iran in 1941 after his father was forced into exile by occupiers 
Soviet Union and Britain. 

Oil Petroleum was the reason the Frumkin children were getting 
Pahlavi Jr. chocolates. 

The second summer of war marked the Soviet low ebb of the con- 
flict: six million soldiers killed or captured, most of Ukraine occupied, 
Leningrad faltering under blokada, Moscow unfallen but vulnerable. As 
the Germans headed southeast, Naum had yet again been transferred, 


J940S: Of Bullets and Bread 

this time to Baku, the hot, windy, uneasily quiet capital of Soviet Azer- 
baijan. This vital Caucasian republic, bordering Iran on the Caspian 
Sea, pumped the majority of Russia’s oil. It was oil Hitler coveted for 
himself. Launching Operation Blau at the Caucasus in June 1942, the 
Fuhrer aimed to take Baku by September. His overconfident generals 
presented him with an extravagantly frosted cake with a sign that said 
KASPISCHES MEER (Caspian Sea). Film footage shows Flitler smiling 
suavely as he takes the slice labeled BAKU But the Luftwaffe left Baku 
alone: its vast petroleum infrastructure had to be delivered intact. The 
Fuhrer wanted to eat his cake but have it too. 

Iran, meanwhile, occupied but still nominally neutral, simmered 
with international intrigue. Tehran was thick with German agents and 
operatives. Shuttling between Baku and the Iranian capital, Naum was 
back in the familiar world of cloak-and-dagger. So highly classified 
was his work that he never confided its details to any of us — aside from 
bragging about having met the dashing young shah on the chocolates. 

From Baku, Naum dispatched Ivan Ivanych, his intelligence aide, 
to Ulyanovsk to bring the family south. Gray-eyed and sinewy, Ivan 
looked the part of an elite GRU spy guy— lend-lease black leather coat, 
tall boots, a pistol, plus a mysterious attache case he watched like a 
hawk. The journey to Baku lasted three nightmarish weeks, or maybe 
six, Mother can’t remember. Mostly they bivouacked for days at train 
stations on layovers between hopelessly delayed, crawling teplushki, 
the wartime cattle freights overcrowded with orphaned children and 
wounded combatants whose bandages undulated with black swarms 
office. At one point Ivan dozed off on a station bench and someone 
snatched his attache case. Mom watched the GRU hero chase down 
the culprit and whack him on the head with the butt of his gun. The 
police intervened, the attache case sprang open, and to her utter as- 
tonishment, Mom saw watches — big clunky watches! — tumble out 
onto the pavement. Larisa was little, but not too little to smell a black 
marketeer, even though Granddad later insisted that the watches were 
“crucial intelligence tools.” (Who knew?) For the final leg of the jour- 
ney there was a boat at a filthy port in Turkmenistan where women in 
headscarves hawked quince and men with Turkic features rode atop 



camels. For several days everyone vomited crossing the Caspian during 
a storm. 

Naum met the family on a pier in Baku with an armful of tanger- 
ines. An oily Caspian darkness smothered the city. Mom could barely 
make out Naum’s features, but the overwhelming aroma of citrus made 
her weep. The family was together again. Their luck had held. 

Compared to hungry Ulyanovsk, Baku was a different planet, a 
lush Orientalist dreamscape similar to the magical pavilions Larisa 
had encountered at Moscow’s agricultural exhibition back in prewar 
1939. At the bazaars men with splendiferous mustaches not unlike 
Comrade Stalin’s whistled at Liza as she bartered her bread rations for 
fuzzy porcelain-looking peaches, sun-dried figs threaded on strings, 
and tubs of Azeri yogurt, piercingly tart. There were swims in the pol- 
luted Caspian Sea; mouths and fingers stained from climbing mulberry 
trees. Local Caspian Flotilla dignitaries hosted rice pilaf feasts aboard 
destroyers and cruisers. Only the foul smell from the oil rigs marred 
Mother’s happiness. 

Once in a while Naum’s family even got a taste — literally — of his 
intelligence work. A few of his “boys” would haul a big table into the 
courtyard of the house where they shared one narrow closetlike room, 
but with a balcony and a view. On the table lay a sturgeon the size of a 
man, or a small whale. Fishing was the cover for Naum’s spies in the Cas- 
pian. The sturgeon was split open, glistening caviar scooped from its 
belly. For weeks after, the family ate sturgeon pickled, brined, dried, and 
minced into kotleti. To this day Mother can’t look at sturgeon or caviar, 
still riven, she says, by the guilt of eating those delicacies while the rest 
of the country was starving. During the entire eighteen months they 
spent by the Caspian, Mom couldn’t shake the sense that she was hal- 
lucinating. She was dazed and overwhelmed by her family’s luck— their 
improbable luck. 

★ ★ ★ 

By early 1943, Russia’s luck, too, was changing at last. LI filer's lunge for 
the Caucasus oil fields had collapsed. It collapsed because it started so 


1940s: Of Bullets and Bread 

well that the Fuhrer split his forces to grab for another prize simulta- 
neously: the strategic city on the Volga named after Stalin. The fate of 
the Reich was cast. Operation Blau (for the blue of the Caspian) was 
sucked into what the Germans now called the “War of the Rats” in 
the freezing rubblescape of bombed-out Stalingrad. Over the course 
of more than six months, Hitler’s forces, commanded by Field Marshal 
Paulus, were annihilated by the combined power of the Russian winter, 
hunger, and the Red Army under bloody Zhukov and General Vasily 
Chuikov. It was the first and the worst Nazi defeat since the begin- 
ning of Operation Barbarossa. Germans killed and wounded numbered 
some three-quarters of a million. The Russians suffered more than a 
million casualties (a figure that exceeds the total World War II losses 
for both the United States and Britain). But with Paulus’s surrender in 
February 1943, the momentum had swung. Come May 1945, Zhukov 
and Chuikov ’s Red banner would wave over Berlin’s ruins. 

As for Naum, he stayed on in Baku even after Stalingrad and the 
passing of the Caucasus oil threat. In autumn of 1943 the Azeri capi- 
tal became the hub of technical and logistical support for the Soviet 
presence at the Tehran Conference. Yalta and Potsdam might be more 
famous, but Tehran was the grand rehearsal, the first time the “Big 
Three” — Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill — came together around a 
table. Stalin himself arrived in Baku by train in November, from there 
flying to Tehran. The plane ride was another first: the phobic Wise 
Helmsman had never been airborne before. 

★ ★ ★ 

On a notably balmy afternoon on November 29, midconference, the 
Big Three and their aides sat down to a white-tablecloth late lunch in 
the Soviet embassy’s snug living room. Stalin was desperate for a second 
front in Europe, and the menu was part of his charm offensive. The 
lunch card featured zakuski (appetizers), clear bouillon with pirozhki, 
then steak followed by plombir ice cream. To drink: wines from the Cau- 
casus, and the ever-indispensable Sovetskoye brand champagne, Sta- 
lin’s pride. In Leningrad the Siege wouldn’t be lifted for another two 


months yet, and close to a million had perished from hunger. In Teh- 
ran, as waiters passed around vodka, Armenian brandy, and vermouth, 
Marshal Stalin rose to offer a welcoming toast. No longer the abject 
gray-faced figure of June 1941, our Vozhd acted the part of the Nazi 
vanquisher of epic Stalingrad. 

Not all the Soviet attendees showed Stalin’s poise. The Vozhd’s rav- 
enous interpreter, Valentin Berezhkov, was caught with a mouthful of 
steak just as Churchill began to speak. There was awkward silence, tit- 
tering, laughter. Stalin’s eyes flashed. “Some place you found for a din- 
ner,” he hissed at the hapless Berezhkov through clenched teeth. “Look 
at you stuffing your face. What a disgrace!” (Berezhkov survived to re- 
cord the incident, and the meal, in his memoirs.) 

But mainly Stalin waxed gastronomic to his Allied invitees. He in- 
voked the subtleties of his spicy native Georgian cooking. FDR revved 
up his own charm, praising the inky Caucasian wines and enthusing 
about Sovetskoye Shampanskoye — shouldn’t this "marvelous wine” 
be imported to the United States? A Pol Roger aficionado, Churchill 
tactfully chose to admire the Armenian brandy. No one mentioned the 
epidemic looting and black marketeering of American lend-lease food 
supplies, or that Soviet wine-bottling plants were mostly producing 
containers for Molotov cocktails. (Sovestkoye Shampanskoye? Among 
Russian troops this was the nickname for an explosive blond concoc- 
tion of sulphur and phosphorus.) 

To cap off the lunch, Stalin arranged for a pescatorial showstopper. 
Four stout uniformed men trailed by a pair of Filipino chefs trailed by a 
U.S. security guy carried in a giant fish, again as big as a man or a small 
whale. No, it wasn’t one of Naum’s spy-cover belugas, but a salmon 
freighted in from Russia. 

“I want to present this to you, Mr. President,” Stalin announced. 

“How wonderful! I’m touched by your attention,” said FDR 

“No trouble at all,” said Stalin, just as graciously. 

Reboarding his plane, the lunch host had what he wanted: a commit- 
ment to a European second front, Operation Overlord (D-Day), for early 
1944; and the eastern slice of Poland as lawful property of the USSR. 


7 94 Os : Of Bullets and Bread 

Tastier pieces of European cake would follow at the Yalta Confer- 
ence in February 1945. And a much fancier banquet proper. As the 
country still reeled from starvation, a grandiose Potemkin village re- 
sort was set up for the Big Three in the war-devastated Crimea in just 
under three weeks. Suddenly there appeared two service airports, lavish 
fountains, sixty-eight remodeled rooms across three czarist palaces, ten 
thousand plates, nine thousand pieces of silverware, and three kitchens 
fueled with masses of firewood magically transported along paralyzed 
railway networks. At the main feast — white fish in champagne sauce, 
Central Asian quail pilaf, kebabs from the Caucasus — the host and 
soon-to-be Generalissimo was reported by attendees to be “full of fun 
and good humor,” even “smiling like a benign old man.” And why not? 
He’d gotten himself de facto the rest of Poland and the keys to most of 
post-war Eastern Europe. 

★ ★ ★ 

“Govorit Moskva”— Moscow Speaking. Later that spring of 1945, the radio 
man Yuri Levitan made one of his most operatic announcements. In 
a steely, officious baritone, he announced that Soviet forces had con- 
cluded the destruction of Germany’s Berlin divisions. “Today, on the 
Second of May,” he continued, his voice rising, gathering force, “they 
achieved total control ... of the German capital ... of the city ... of 

Without understanding Russian you might think he was a South 
American soccer commentator shouting out news of a goal. The iconic 
image of the Soviet Victory Banner on the roof of the Reichstag, how- 
ever, is unambiguous. 

On May 9, 1945, at 2:io a.m., Levitan read the German Instrument 
of Surrender, and everything inside my mother froze. She couldn’t help 
it. Dread and terror. She felt them, without fail, every time she heard 
Levitan’s voice and the words “Moscow Speaking.” It no longer mat- 
tered that for months now the Voice had been bringing good news, that 
following its announcements of the Soviet retaking of each new Rus- 
sian city, fireworks and artillery salvos boomed through the center of 



Moscow, where the Frumkin family had been reunited for more than 
a year now. To this day the thought of Levitan’s baritone paralyzes my 

Mom remembers as vividly the spontaneous, overwhelming out- 
pouring of orgiastic relief and elation that swept the capital on May 9. 
More than two million revelers streamed toward Moscow’s old cen- 
ter. An undulating sea of red carnations and white snowdrops. Soldiers 
tossed into the air. Delirious people— hugging, kissing, dancing, los- 
ing their voices from shouting OORAAAA (hooray). That night power- 
ful strobes flashed on the Kremlin’s towers, illuminating the visage of 
Stalin, seemingly floating above Red Square, and the fireworks were 
extravagant: thirty blasts fired from one thousand mortars. 

Among the celebrants was a reed-thin, six-foot-tall beauty with 
green sirenlike eyes and a hastily applied smear of red lipstick. She was 
in her late twenties, yanking along a recalcitrant eight-year-old boy. 
The louder everyone cheered, the harder the woman sobbed. Andrei 
Bremzen, her husband, my paternal grandfather, was one of the eight 
million men who didn’t return from the front. 

If one adds civilian deaths, the Great Patriotic War (as we officially 
called it) took 2 7 million lives, although some estimates are far higher. 
In Russia it left tragedy and devastation unprecedented in history, un- 
fathomable in its scale. For four uninterrupted years war had camped 
on Soviet soil. There were 25 million citizens homeless, 1,700 towns 
and more than 70,000 villages reduced to rubble, an entire generation 
of men wiped out. 

★ ★ ★ 

By war’s end my mother was eleven, a bookish daydreamer with two 
thick black braids who’d graduated from Hans Christian Andersen 
to Hugo’s Let Miserables in its mellifluous Russian translation. Really, 
any book permeated with romantic tragedy attracted my mother. The 
first post-war summer found her family at a cozy dacha on the outskirts 
of Pushkino, a town north of Moscow where Naum was now direct- 
ing a spy-training academy. “Counterintelligence, counterintelligence!” 


1940s: Of Bullets and Bread 

Granddad kept correcting, brows furrowed, when anyone blurted out 
the “spy” word. Later that year he’d be in Germany to debrief Hermann 
Goering amid the ruins at the Nurenberg Trials. 

Swatting flies and picking at gooseberries. Mom read her sad books 
and contemplated what was happening to Russia. What to make of the 
crippled men now thronging stations, begging and playing the accor- 
dion ! 3 How to grieve for the fathers of her friends who hadn’t come back? 
Strangely, no one else in her family shared these thoughts. Liza plunged 
herself into household chores; Naum, who anyway never really talked to 
the kids, was busy with his steely-eyed spy colleagues and their coiffed 
wives, who boasted of the furniture their husbands scored in Berlin. 
Yulia quoted Generalissimo Stalin so often now, it made Mother nau- 
seated. And so Larisa started a diary. Carefully she selected a small book 
with glossy white pages and a gold-embossed cover, a prewar Scandina- 
vian present from Naum. She dipped her pen in the inkpot and paused 
for so long that ink drops ruined the page and she had to tear it out. 

“Death,” she then wrote, pressing hard on the pen so it squeaked. 
“Death inevitably comes at the end of life. Sometimes a very short life.” She 
thought a bit and continued. “ But if we are meant to die anyway, what should 
we do? How must we live that short hour between birth and death?” 

To these questions Mom had no answers, but simply writing them 
down she felt relief. She thought some more about such matters out on 
the grass by the house, sucking on a sweet clover petal as dragonflies 
buzzed overhead. 

“DEATH!! DEATH???” Liza’s screams broke Mom’s contemplation. 

Liza pulled at Mom’s braid, brandishing the notebook she’d just 
found on the table. “We beat the Germans! Your father fought for your 
happiness! How dare you have such bad, silly thoughts. Death!” Liza 
ripped up the notebook and stormed back into the house. Mom lay on 
the grass looking at the shreds of paper around her. She felt too hollow 
even to cry. Her parents and the voices on the black public loudspeak- 
ers, she suddenly realized — they were one and the same. Her innermost 
thoughts were somehow all wrong and unclean, she was being told, and 
in her entire life she had never felt more alone. 



1950s: TASTY AND 

I n the prework hours of March 4, 1953, a time of year when mornings 
are still disagreeably dim and the icicles on roofs begin their thawing 
and refreezing act, classical music aficionados in Moscow woke up 
to a pleasant surprise. From early morning that day, instead of the 
usual Sovietica cheer, the radio was serving up a veritable banquet of 
symphonic and chamber delights in sad minor keys. Grieg, Borodin, 
Alexander Glazunov’s most elegiac string quartet. It was when the 
radio’s “physical culture” lesson was replaced with yet another somber 
classical piece that people began to have thoughts. 

“Someone in the Politburo kicked the bucket?” 

The shocking announcement came around nine a.m. 

“Comrade Stalin has suffered a brain hemorrhage . . . loss of consciousness. Pa- 
ralysis of right arm and leg. . . loss of speech." 

Throughout that day a familiar baritone boomed on the airways. 
Declaiming medical bulletins of the beloved leader’s declining condi- 
tion, Yuri Levitan was back in combat mode. Pulse. Breathing rate. Urinaly- 
ses. The Voice infused such clinical details with the same melodrama 
with which it announced the retaking of Orel and Kursk from the 
Nazis, or the drops in prices immediately after the war. 

"Over last night Comrade Stalin’s condition has seriously de-te-rio- 
ra-tedl” announced Levitan next day, March 5. “Despite medical and 
oxygen treatments, the Leader began Cheyne-Stokes res-pi-ra-ti-onl" 



“Chain what?” citizens wondered. 

Only doctors understood the fatal significance of this clinical term. 
And if said doctors had “Jewish” as Entry 5 (their ethnicity) on their pass- 
ports? Well, they must have felt their own death sentences lifting with 
Stalin’s last, comatose breath. In his paranoid, sclerotic final years, the Gen- 
eralissimo was outdoing himself with an utterly fantastical anti-Semitic 
purge known as the Doctors’ Plot. Being a Jewish medic— Jewish any- 
thing, really— in those days signified all but certain doom. But now Pravda 
abruptly suspended its venomous news reports of the Doctors’ Plot trial. 
And in the Lubyanka cellars where “murderers in white coats” were being 
worked over, some torturers changed their line of questioning. 

“What’s Cheyne-Stokes?” they now demanded of their physician- 

By the time the media announced Stalin’s condition on March 4, the 
Supreme Leader had been unconscious for several days. It had all begun 
late on the morning of March 1 when he didn’t ask for his tea. Alarmed 
at the silence of motion detectors in his quarters, the staff at his Kunt- 
sevo dacha proceeded to do exactly . . . nothing. Hours went by. Finally 
someone dared enter. The seventy-three-year-old Vozhd was found on 
the floor, his pajama pants soaked in urine. Comrade Lavrenty Beria’s 
black ZIS sedan rolled up long after midnight. The secret police chief 
exhibited touching devotion to his beloved boss. “Leave him alone, he’s 
sleeping,” the pince-nezed executioner and rapist instructed, and left 
without calling an ambulance. 

Medical types were finally allowed in the following morning. Shak- 
ing from fear, they diagnosed massive stroke. Suspecting he might have 
been Stalin’s next victim. Comrade Beria had reasons for keeping as- 
sistance away. Ditto other Politburo intimates, including a sly, piglike 
secretary of the Moscow Party organization named Nikita Khrushchev. 
Whatever the Kremlin machinations, the pockmarked shoemaker’s son 
ne Iosif Dzhugashvili died around 9:50 p.m. on March 5, 1953. 

He was gone. 

The country was fatherless. Father of Nations-less. 


7950s: Tasty and Healthy 

Also Generalissimo-, Mountain Eagle-, Transformer of Nature-, 
Genius of Humanity-, Coryphaeus of Science-, Great Strategist of 
the Revolution-, Standard-bearer of Communism-, Grand Master of 
Bold Revolutionary Solutions and Decisive Turns -/ess. 

The Best Friend of All Children, Pensioners, Nursing Mothers, 
Kolkhoz Workers, Hunters, Chess Players, Milkmaids, and Long- 
Distance Runners was no more. 

He was gone. 

The nation was Stalin-less. 

★ ★ ★ 

In the sleety early March days right before Stalin’s death, Larisa, dressed 
in perpetually leaking boots and a scratchy orange turtleneck under a 
gray pinafore dress, was navigating the cavernous bowels of INYAZ. 
This was the Moscow state institute of foreign languages, home to 
Kafka-esque corridors and an underheated canteen with that eternal 
reek of stewed cabbage. Home to elderly multilingual professors: prime 
targets of Stalin’s vicious campaign against “rootless cosmopolitans.” 

Closed vowels, open vowels. In her phonetics class my mother was 
sighing. Land— Lend. Man— Men. A Russian ear is deaf to such subtle- 
ties. Anyway, how to concentrate on vowels and the like when Comrade 
Stalin lay dying? 

Irrespective of the Vozhd’s condition, an English major at INYAZ 
didn’t figure into Mom’s idea of any Radiant Future. It was a dull, re- 
spectable career compromise, as her fervent dreams of the stage kept 
crashing. “I probably lacked the talent,” Mom admits nowadays. “And 
the looks.” Back then it seemed more, well, dramatic to blame her crushed 
hopes on a “history of drama” exam at the fashionable GITIS theater 
academy. At her entrance orals, having memorized the official texts. 
Mom delivered the requisite critique of rootless cosmopolitanism to a 
pair of stately professors*. Did they really grimace at her declaiming how 
art belongs to narod, the people? Why did they give her a troika, a C, for 
her faultless textbook recitation? Only much later Mom realized, with 
great shame, that those two erudite connoisseurs of Renaissance drama 



were themselves being hounded and harassed for their “unbridled, 
evil-minded cosmopolitanism.” 

On March 6 , as word of Stalin’s passing spread, the INYAZ cor- 
ridors echoed with sobs. Classes were canceled. Janitorial babushkas 
leaned on their mops, wailing over their buckets like pagan Slavs at a 
funeral. Mom’s own eyes were dry but her teeth rattled and her limbs 
felt leaden under the historic weight of the news. On the tram home, 
commuters hunched on wooden seats in tense silence. Through the 
windows Mother watched funerary banners slowly rise across build- 
ings. Workmen were plastering over the cheerful billboards advertising 
her favorite plays. She closed her eyes and saw blackness, a gaping void 
instead of a future. 

Three days later, my mother, Liza, and Yulia set off for the funeral, 
but seeing the mobs on the streets, they turned back. My teenage dad 
persevered. Sergei, then sixteen and a bit of a street urchin, managed 
to hop forward on rooftops, thread through the epic bottleneck in 
Moscow’s center, crawl under a barrier of official black Studebakers, 
squeeze past policemen atop panicked horses, and sneak into the neo- 
classic pomp of the Hall of Columns where Iosif Vissarionovich lay in 
state, gold buttons aglint on his gray Generalissimo uniform. Sergei’s 
best friend, Platosha, wasn’t so lucky, however: his skull was cracked in 
the infamous funeral stampede into Trubnaya Square. Nobody’s sure 
of the exact number of fatalities, but at least several hundred mourners 
were trampled to death on March 9 in the monstrous surge to see Sta- 
lin’s body. Even in his coffin, Stalin claimed victims. 

Weeks after the funeral. Mom was still shaken. There were two things 
she just couldn’t get over. The first was galoshes. 1 mages of black galoshes 
strewn all over Moscow in the wake of the funeral, along with hats, mit- 
tens, scarves, fragments of coats. The second was unreality— the utter 
unreality of Levitan’s health bulletins during Stalin’s final days. 

Urine. The Great Leader had urine? Pulse? Respiration? Blood? Weren’t 
those words she heard at the shabby neighborhood polyclinic? 

Mom tried to imagine Stalin squatting on a toilet or having his 


J950S: Tasty and Healthy 

blood drawn by someone with sweat stains under his arms from fear. 
But it didn’t seem possible! And in the end how could Stalin do some- 
thing as mundane, as mundanely human, as die? 

When Stalin’s passing finally began to sink in. Mom’s bewilderment 
gave way to a different feeling: bitter and angry disappointment. He had 
left them— left her. He would never come to see her triumph in a play. 
Whether rehearsing for auditions, Mom realized, or picturing herself 
on the stage of the Moscow Art Theater in some socially meaningful 
Gorky production— she yearned for his approbation, his presence, his 
all-wise, discriminating blessing. 

After Mom confided all this to me recently, I couldn’t sleep. Larisa 
Naumovna Frumkina. The dissident heart who had always shielded me 
from Soviet contamination . . . 

She wanted to be an actress for Stalin? 

So here it was, then: the raw emotional grip of a totalitarian person- 
ality cult; that deep bond, hypnotic and intimate, between Stalin and 
his citizenry. Until now. I’d found this notion abstract. The State of my 
childhood had been a creaking geriatric machine run by a cartoonish 
Politburo that inspired nothing but vicious political humor. With the 
fossilized lump of Brezhnev as Leader, it was, at times, rather fun. But 
Mom’s response to Stalin’s death suddenly illuminated for me the power 
of his cult. Its insidious duality. On the one hand the Great Leader was 
a divinity unflawed by the banalities of human life. A historical force, 
transcendental, mysterious, and somehow existing outside and above 
the wretched regime he’d created. At the same time, he was father fig- 
ure to all — a kind, even cozily homely paterfamilias to the whole Soviet 
nation, a man who hugged kids on posters and attracted propaganda 
epithets like pros toy (simple), blizky (intimate), and rodnoy, an endearment 
reserved for the closest of kin, with the same etymology as the equally 
resonant rodina (homeland). 

By the time Stalin died, Mother was no longer an alienated child; but 
neither was she a bumpkin or a brainwashed Komsomol (Communist 
Youth) hack. She was a hyperliterary nineteen-year-old, a worshipper of 



dissident cultural heroes like Shostakovich and Pasternak, appalled by 
their harassment— and all the while spouting anti-cosmopolitan vitriol. 
In short, she suffered from a full-blown case of that peculiar Stalinist 

“Look,” Mom explained, “I was anti-Soviet from the time I was 
born— in my gut, in my heart. But in my head psychologically some- 
how ... I guess I was a young Stalinist. But then after he died,” she con- 
cluded, “my head became clear.” 

★ ★ ★ 

In certain dissident-leaning USSR circles there arose a tradition of 
celebrating March 5. Although de-Stalinization didn’t take place over- 
night, for many, Stalin’s deathday came to mark a watershed both his- 
toric and private; a symbolic moment when the blindfolds came off and 
one attained a new consciousness. 

It so happened that March rolled along just as I was writing this 
chapter. In the spirit of these old dissident get-togethers. Mom decided 
that we should host our own deathday gathering. Again we turned to 
the cookbook my mother had fallen in love with at the age of five. 

One sixth of the measured world, eleven time zones, fifteen eth- 
nic republics. A population of nearly 300 million by the empire’s end. 
This was the USSR. And in the best spirit of socialist communality, 
our polyglot behemoth Rodina shared one constitution, one social bu- 
reaucracy, one second-grade math curriculum— and one kitchen bible 
for all: The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food. Begotten in 1939, Kniga (The 
Book) was an encyclopedic cooking manual, sure. But with its didactic 
commentaries, ideological sermonizing, neo-Enlightenment scientific 
excursions, and lustrous photo spreads of Soviet production plants and 
domestic feasts, it offered more— a compete blueprint of joyous, abun- 
dant, cultured socialist living. I couldn’t wait to revisit this socialist 
(un)realist landmark. 

As a young woman, my mother learned to cook from the 1952 ver- 
sion. This was the iconic edition: bigger, better, happier, more politi- 
cally virulent, with the monumental heft of those Stalinist neo-Gothic 


195 Os.- Tasty and Healthy 

skyscrapers of the late forties and the somber-brown hard cover of a 
social science treatise. The appearance was meaningful. Cooking, it 
suggested, was no frivolous matter. No! Cooking, dear comrades, rep- 
resented a collective utopian project: Self-Improvement and Accultura- 
tion Through Kitchen Labor. 

You could also neatly follow post-war policy shifts by comparing the 
1939 and 1952 editions of The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food. 

In the late thirties, a Bolshevik internationalist rhetoric still held 
sway. This was the internationalism celebrated, for example, by the hit 
1936 musical comedy film Circus of “O Vast Is My Country” song fame. 
Circus trumpets the tale of Marion, a white American trapeze artist 
chased out of Kansas with her illegitimate mulatto baby. Marion winds 
up in Moscow. In the Land of the Soviets, she’s not in Kansas any- 
more! Here she finds an entire nation eager to cuddle her kid, plus a 
hunky acrobat boyfriend. In a famous scene of the internationalist idyll, 
the renowned Yiddish actor Shloyme Mikhoels sings a lullaby to the 
African-American child. 

That scene was later deleted. So was Mikhoels— assassinated in 
1948 on Stalin’s orders amid general anti-Semitic hysteria. America? 
Our former semifriendly (albeit racist) competitor was now fully de- 
monized as an imperialist cold war foe. Consequently, xenophobia 
reigns in the 1952 Kniga. Gone is the 1939’s Jewish teiglach recipe; vanished 
Kalmyk tea (Kalmyks being a Mongolic minority deported en masse 
for supposed Nazi collaboration). Canapes, croutons, consommes— the 
1952 volume is purged of such “rootless cosmopolitan” froufrou. Ditto 
sendvichi, kornfeks, and ketchup, those American delicacies snatched up 
by Mikoyan during his thirties trip to America. 

In the next reprint, released in August 1953 ■ ■ • surprise! All quota- 
tions from Stalin have disappeared. In 1954, no Lavrenty Beria (he was 
executed in December 1953)— and so no more my favorite 1952 photo, 
of a pork factory in Azerbaijan named after him. Aporkfactory in a Muslim 
republic, named after “Stalin’s butcher." 

Kremlin winds shifted, commissars vanished, but the official Soviet 
myth of plenty persisted, and people clung to the magic tablecloth fairy 
tale. Who could resist the utopia of the socialist good life promoted 



so graphically in Kniga ? Just look at the opening photo spread! Here 
are craggy oysters— oysters!— piled on a silver platter between bottles of 
Crimean and Georgian wines. Long-stemmed cut-crystal goblets tower 
over a glistening platter of fish in aspic. Sovetskoye brand bubbly chills 
in a bucket, its neck angling toward a majestic suckling pig. Meanwhile, 
the intro informs us, “Capitalist states condemn working citizens to 
constant under-eating . . . and often to hungry death.” 

The wrenching discrepancy between the abundance on the pages 
and its absence in shops made Kniga s myth of plenty especially poi- 
gnant. Long-suffering Homo sovieticus gobbled down the deception; 
long-suffering H. sovieticus had after all been weaned on socialist real- 
ism, an artistic doctrine that insisted on depicting reality “in its revolu- 
tionary development” — past and present swallowed up by a triumphant 
projection of a Radiant Future. In socialist realist visions, kolkhoz 
maidens danced around cornucopic sheaves of wheat, mindless of fam- 
ines; laboring weavers morphed into Party princesses through happy 
Stakhanovite toil. Socialist realism encircled like an enchanted mirror: 
the exhausted and hunger-gnawed in real life peered in and saw only 
their rosy future-transformed reflections. 

Recently, I shared these musings with Mom. “Huh?” she replied. 
Then she proceeded to tell me her own Kniga story. 

December 1953, she said, was as frigid as any in Russia. The politi- 
cal climate, however, was warming. Gulag prisoners had already begun 
their return; Beria had just been executed. And Moscow’s culturati 
were in an uproar over a piece in the literary magazine Novy mir. “On 
Sincerity in Literature” the essay was called, by one Vladimir Pomer- 
antsev, a legal investigator. It dared to bash socialist realism. 

Larisa recalls that she was cooking her way through The Book of Tasty 
and Healthy Food when Yulia handed her the Nov y mir conspiratorially 
wrapped in an issue of Pravda. In those days Mom cooked like a ma- 
niac. Her childhood suspicions of life not being “entirely good” and the 
future not radiant had strengthened by now into a dull, aching convic- 
tion. Cooking relieved the ache somewhat. Into the meals she whipped 
up from scant edibles, she channeled all her disappointed theatrical 


7950S: Tasty and Healthy 

yearnings. Her parent’s multicornered, balconied kitchen offered a 
stage for a consoling illusion, that somehow she might cook her way out 
of the bleak Soviet grind. 

The Novy mir sat on the white kitchen table as Mom assembled 
her favorite dish. It was a defrosted cod with potatoes in a fried 
mushroom sauce, all baked with a cap of mayo and cheapo processed 
cheese. The cod was Mom’s realist-realist riff on a Kniga recipe. The 
scents of cheese, fish, and mushrooms had just started mingling when 
Mom, scanning the “sincerity” article, came to the part about food. 
Overall, Pomerantsev was condemning socialist realist literature for 
its hypocritical “varnishing of reality” — a phrase that would be much 
deployed in liberal attacks on cultural Stalinism. Pomerantsev sin- 
gled out among the cliches the (fake) smell of delicious pelmeni (meat 
dumplings). He complained that even those writers who didn’t set 
the table with phony roast goose and suckling pigs still removed “the 
black bread” from the scene, airbrushing out foul factory canteens 
and dorms. 

Mom leafed through her Kniga and suddenly laughed. Oysters? 
Champagne buckets? Fruit cornucopias spilling out of cut-crystal 
bowls? They positively glared with their hypocrisy now. “Lies, lies, lies,” 
Mom said, stabbing her finger into the photo of the suckling pig. She 
slammed shut The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food and pulled her cod out of 
the oven. It was her dish, her creation stripped of the communal abun- 
dance myth— liberated from the Stalinist happiness project. 

She never opened the Kniga again until I pushed it on her in New 

★ ★ ★ 

Prepping for our Stalin’s Deathday dinner, Mom phoned constantly for 
my menu approval. 

Her overarching concept, as usual, was maddeningly archival: to 
nail the cultural pastiche of late Stalinism. One dish had to capture 
the era’s officious festive pomposity. We settled finally on a crab salad 



with its Stalinist-baroque decoration of chimerical anchovy strips (never 
seen in Moscow), coral crab legs, and parsley bouquets. Pompous and 
pastiche-y both. 

As a nod to the pauperist intelligentsia youth of the emerging Thaw 
generation, Mom also planned on ultra-frugal pirozhki. The eggless 
pastry of flour, water, and one stick of margarin enjoyed a kind of viral 
popularity at the time. 

This left us needing only an “ethnic” dish. 

Stalin’s imperialist post-war policies treated Soviet minorities as in- 
ferior brothers of the great ethnic Russians (or downright enemies of 
the people, at times). So while the 1952 Kniga deigns to include a hand- 
ful of token dishes from the republics, it folds them into an all-Soviet 
canon. Recipes for Ukrainian borscht, Georgian kharcho (a soup), and 
Armenian dolmas are offered with nary a mention of their national 

Mom rang a day later. “To represent the ethnic republics,” she an- 
nounced, unnaturally formal, “I have selected . . . chanakhi!” 

“No!” I protested. “You can’ t— it was Stalin’s favorite dish!" 

“Oy,” Mom said, and hung up. 

She called back. “But I already bought lamb chops,” she bleated. 
She had also bought baby eggplants, ripe tomatoes and peppers, and 
lots of cilantro— in short, all the ingredients for the deliciously soupy 
clay-baked Georgian stew called chanakhi. 

“But, Ma,” I reasoned, “wouldn't it be weird to celebrate liberation 
from Stalin with his personal favorite dish?” 

“Are you totally sure,” she wheedled, “that it was his favorite dish?” 

With a sigh I agreed to double check. I hung up and poured myself a 
stiff Spanish brandy. Grudgingly, I reexamined my researches. 

“Stalin,” wrote the Yugoslav communist literatteur Milovan Djilas on 
encountering the Vozhd in the thirties, “ate food in quantities that 
would have been enormous even for a much larger man. He usually 
chose meat ... a sign of his mountain origins.” Describing meeting him 


J950S: Tasty and Healthy 

again in 1945, Djilas gasped, “Now he was positively gluttonous, as if 
afraid someone might snatch the food from under his nose.” 

Stalin did most of his gluttonizing at his Kuntsevo dacha, not far 
from where I grew up, accompanied by his usual gang of invitees: Beria, 
Khrushchev, Molotov, and Mikoyan. The (non-refusable) invitations 
to dacha meals were spontaneous, the hours late. 

“They were called obeii (lunches),” grumbled Molotov, ‘but what 
kind of lunch is it at ten or eleven p.m.?” 

There was a hominess to these nocturnal meals that suggested Sta- 
lin himself didn’t much enjoy officious Stalinist pomp. A long table 
with massive carved legs was set in the dacha’s wood-paneled dining 
room, which was unadorned save for a fireplace and a huge Persian 
carpet. Waiters presided over by round-faced Valechka — Stalin’s loyal 
housekeeper and possible mistress — left food at one end of the table 
on heavy silver platters with lids, then vanished from sight. Soups sat 
on the side table. The murderous crew got up and helped themselves. 
Stalin’s favorite Danube herring, always unsalted, and stroganina (shaved 
frozen raw fish) could be among the zakuski. Soups were traditional 
and Russian, such as ukha (fish broth) and meaty cabbage shchi cooked 
over several days. Grilled lamb riblets, poached quail, and, invariably, 
plenty of fish for the main courses. It was Soviet-Eurasian fusion, the 
dacha cuisine: Slavic and Georgian. 

I took a swallow of my Carlos I brandy. 

At the dacha Stalin drank light Georgian wine— and, always, water 
from his favorite frosty, elongated carafe — and watched others get 
blotto on vodka. “How many degrees below zero is it outside?” he en- 
joyed quizzing guests. For every degree they were off by, they d have to 
drink a shot. Such dinnertime pranks enjoyed a long regal tradition in 
Russia. Peter the Great jolted diners with dwarfs springing from giant 
pies. At his extravagant banquets, Ivan the Terrible, Stalin’s role model, 
sent chalices of poisoned booze to out-of-favor boyars and watched 
them keel over. Stalin liked to make Humpty Dumpty— like Khrush- 
chev squat and kick his heels in a Ukrainian gopak dance, or he’d roar 
as his henchmen pinned paper scribbled with the word khui (dick) to 



Nikita’s rotund back. Mikoyan, ever practical, confessed to bringing 
extra pants to the dacha: tomatoes on chairs was a cherished dinner table 
hijink. (The tomatoes, incidentally, were grown on the dacha grounds.) 
Throughout this Animal House tomfoolery, Stalin sipped, “perhaps wait- 
ing for us to untie our tongues,” wrote Mikoyan. These were men who, 
in their bloody hands, held the summary fate of one sixth of the world. 

Ever the meticulous foodie, Mikoyan left us the best recollections 
of the Vozhd’s dining mores. Apparently Stalin had a fondness for in- 
venting new dishes for his chefs to perfect. One particular favorite was 
a certain “part soup, part entree . . 

Aha, I said to myself. 

“In a big pot,” Mikoyan wrote, “they’d mix eggplants, tomatoes, po- 
tatoes, black pepper, bay leaf, and pieces of unfatty lamb. It was served 
hot. They added cilantro . . . Stalin named it Aragvi.” 

No, there could be no doubt: Mikoyan was describing a classic 
Georgian stew called chankakhi. Stalin must have dubbed it Aragvi after 
a Georgian river or a favored Moscow Georgian restaurant, or both. 

I thought some more about Mikoyan. Seemingly bulletproof for 
most of his career, by 1953 Stalin’s old cohort, former food commissar, 
and now deputy chair of the Council of Ministers, had finally fallen 
into disfavor. The Vozhd trashed him and Molotov at Central Com- 
mittee plenum; then the pair were left out of the Kuntsevo “lunches.” 
Mikoyan must have counted his days. His son recalled that he kept a 
gun in his desk, a quick bullet being preferable to arrest, which would 
drag his big Armenian family with him. Anastas Ivanovich was a bru- 
tally calculating careerist. Yet, sitting at my desk with my brandy, I felt 
a pang of compassion. 

The phone interrupted my ruminations. 

“Ive resolved the chanakhi dilemma!” my mother proudly an- 
nounced. “Before his death wasn’t Stalin plotting a genocidal purge 
against Georgia?” 

“Well, yes. I believe so,” I conceded, bewildered. This intended 
purge was less famous than the one against Jews. But indeed, Stalin 
seemed to have had ethnic cleansing in mind for his own Caucasian 


7950S.- Tasty and Healthy 

kin. More specifically, he was targeting Mingrelians, a subminority of 
which Beria was a proud son. This could well have been a convoluted 
move against Beria. 

“Well then!” cried Mom. “We can serve chanakhi as a tribute to the 
oppressed Georgians!” 

★ ★ ★ 

“To Stalins death!” hoots Katya after I’ve poured out the vodka. “Let’s 

Inna is shocked. 

“But, Katiush, it’s a bad omen to clink for the dead!” 

“ Exactly ! We must clink so the shit may rot in his grave!” 

March 5 has arrived. Outside my mother’s windows in Queens, 
rain hisses down as we celebrate the snuffing of Stalin’s candle. Katya, 
Musya, Inna — the octogenarian ladies at Mom’s table pick at the showy 
crab-salad platter amid fruit cornucopias and bottles of Sovetskoye 
bubbly. Sveta arrives last — slight, wan of face. Many moons ago, when 
she was a Moscow belle, the great poet Joseph Brodsky would stay with 
her on his visits from Leningrad. The thought touches me now. 

“I went,” Sveta boasts, grinning, “to Stalin’s funeral!” 

“Mishugina,” clucks Katya, making a “crazy” sign with her finger. 
“People were killed!” 

As the monstrous funeral procession swelled and mourners got 
trampled, Sveta hung on to her school’s flower wreath— all the way to 
the Hall of Columns. 

“The lamb, a little tough, maybe?” says Musya, assessing Mother’s 
chanakhi tribute to the oppressed Georgians. I pile insult on injury by 
slyly noting the connection to Stalin’s dacha feasts. Mom flashes me a 
look. She leaves for the kitchen, shaking her head. 

“Here we are, girls,” Inna muses. “Arrests, repressions, denuncia- 
tions . . . Been through all that . . . and still managed to keep our decency.” 

Mom reappears with her intelligentsia-frugal pirozhki. “So enough 
with Stalin already,” she implores. “Can we move on to ottepeh” 



Less than a year after Stalin’s death, Ilya Ehrenburg, a suave literary 
eminence grise, published a mediocre novella critiquing a socialist real- 
ist hack artist and a philistine Soviet factory boss. Or something like 
that; nobody now remembers the plot. But the title stuck, going on to 
define the era of liberalization and hope under Khrushchev. 

Ottepel. Thaw. 

By 1955, after an intense power struggle— Stalin hadn’t designated 
any heir — Khrushchev was assuming full leadership of our Socialist Ro- 
dina. Except that nobody called the potbellied gap-toothed former metal 
worker Mountain Eagle or Genius of Humanity. Father of All Nations? 
You must be kidding. Politely, they called him Nikita Sergeevich, or sim- 
ply Nikita, a folkloric Slavic name that contrasted starkly with Stalin’s 
aloof exotic Georgian otherness. But mostly comrades on the street called 
the new leader Khrushch (beetle), or Lisiy (the bald); later, Kukuruznik 
(Corn Man) for his ultimately self-destructive penchant for corn. 

Referring to our leader with such familiar terms— that in itself was 
a tectonic shift. 

“My elation was unforgettable, the early Thaw times— as intense as 
the fear during Stalin!” Inna leads off. She was working in those heady 
days at Moscow’s Institute of Philosophy. “Nobody worked or ate, we 
just talked and talked, smoked and smoked, to the point of passing out. 
What had happened to our country? How had we allowed it to happen? 
Would the new cult of sincerity change us?” 

'‘The Festival!” Katya and Sveta squeal in unison. The memory has 
them leaping out of their seats. 

If there was a main cultural jolt that launched the Thaw, it was 
“the Festival.” In February 1956 Khrushchev made his epochal “secret 
speech” denouncing Stalin. Seventeen months later, to show the world 
the miraculous transformation of Soviet society, Komsomol bosses with 
the Bald One’s encouragement staged the Sixth International Youth 
Festival in the freshly de-Stalinized Russian capital. 


7950s: Tasty and Healthy 

For Muscovites that sweltering fortnight in July and August of 1957 
was a consciousness-bending event. 

“Festival? Nyet . . . skazka (a fairy tale)!” Sveta croons, her pallid face 
suddenly flushed. 

Skazka indeed. A culture where a few years earlier the word in - 
ostranets (foreigner) meant “spy” or “enemy” had suddenly yanked open 
the Iron Curtain for a brief moment, letting in a flood tide of jeans, 
boogie-woogie, abstract art, and electric guitars. Never— never!— had 
Moscow seen such a spectacle. Two million giddy locals cheered the 
thirty thousand delegates from more than one hundred countries in the 
opening parade stretching along twelve miles. Buildings were painted, 
drunks disciplined, city squares and parks transformed into dance 
halls. Concerts, theater, art shows, the street as an orgy of spontane- 
ous contact. That internationalist summer is credited with everything 
from spawning the dissident movement to fostering Jewish identity. 
(Jews flocked from all over the USSR to meet the Israeli delegation.) 
More than anything else perhaps was this: the first real spark of the 
all-powerful myth of zagranitsa—a. loaded word meaning “beyond the 
border” that would inflame, taunt, and titillate Soviet minds until 
the fall of the USSR. 

And love, that picnic of love, the Khrushchevian Woodstock. 

Sveta fell for a seven-foot-tall red-haired American. La bella Katya, 
translating for a delegation of Italian soccer players, had one of her in- 
amoratos threaten suicide as they parted. In farewell, the distraught 
Romeo tossed her a package out of his hotel window. 

“So I unwrap it at home,” cries Katya. “Panties! Transparent blue 

Mom’s guests rock with laughter. “Remember our Soviet under- 
pants? Two colors only: purple or blue, knee length. Sadistic elastic!” 

★ ★ ★ 

Larisa, too, fell in love with an International Youth Festival foreigner. 
And he with her. 

Lucien was petite and deeply tanned, with chiseled features and 



dark, lively eyes. He wore a dapper short leather jacket and suede loafers 
so pristine and comfortable-looking, they instantly betrayed him as ne 
nash not ours. Born in Paris, raised on Corsica, Lucien ran a French 
lycee in the Moroccan town of Meknes, a cultural cocktail Mom found 
intoxicating. In my mother’s cracked vinyl photo album, the fortnight’s 
worth of pictures of him outnumber the ones of my dad three to one. 

It was their mutual interest in Esperanto that brought the lovers to- 
gether. Lucien sat next to Mom at the Festival’s first Esperanto plenary 
session, and when two days later, under one of the behemoth Stalinist 
facades on Gorky Street, he put his arm around her, it seemed the most 
natural thing in the world. Lucien radiated charm and goodwill. In all 
her life Mom, then twenty-three, had never had a suitor who expressed 
his attraction with such disarming directness, such sweetness. Some- 
how her three words of Esperanto allowed her to communicate her in- 
nermost feelings to Lucien where Russian had failed her before. 

Which makes sense. For all the Thaw talk of sincerity, Soviet Rus- 
sian wasn t suited for goodwill or intimacy or, God knows, unselfcon- 
scious lyrical prattle. As our friend Sasha Genis the cultural critic wrote, 
the State had hijacked all the fine, meaningful words. Friendship, home- 
land, happiness, love, future, consciousness, work— these could only be brack- 
eted with ironic quotation marks. 

Young lady, how about we go build Communism together” went a 
popular pickup line in the metro. Girls found it hysterical. 

Here’s how the coyly convoluted Soviet mating ritual went: Igor 
meets Lida at a student dorm or party. They smoke on a windowsill. 
Igor needles Lida admiringly, she needles back coquettishly. Walking 
Lida home, Igor flaunts his knowledge of Hemingway, maybe mentions 
that he just happens to have sought-after tickets to the Italian film festi- 
val at the Udarnik Cinema. He lingers on her apartment landing. With 
studied nonchalance he mutters something about her telefonchik (ironic 
diminutive for phone number). After several weeks/months of mingy 
carnation offerings, aimless ambling along windswept boulevards, and 
heated groping in cat-piss-infested apartment lobbies, a consumma- 
tion takes place. In some bushes crawling with ants if breezes are warm. 


7950s: Tasty and Healthy 

Lida gets knocked up. If Igor is decent, they go to the ZAGS, the office 
that registers deaths and marriages. Their happily- ever- after involves 
moving into her or his family “dwelling space,” which is overcrowded 
with a father who drinks, a mother who yells, a domineering war widow 
grandmother, and a pesky Young Pioneer brother. The Young Pioneer 
likes to spy on newlyweds having sex. From there, married life only gets 

By the time I was nine, I already suspected that such nuptial bliss 
wasn’t for me. I had a different plan, involving zagranitsa. A foreign hus- 
band would be my ticket out of this “dismally-ever-after” to a glorious 
life filled with prestigious foreign commodities. More romantic by na- 
ture, Mom belonged as well to a generation more idealistic than mine. 
Her zagranitsa dreams did not feature hard-currency goods. Instead, into 
this single loaded term she distilled her desperate longing for world cul- 
ture. Or, I should probably say, World Culture. After the collapse of the 
Stalin cosmology and her drift away from her ur-Soviet parents, culture 
replaced everything else in her life. It became a private devotion. 

When Lucien talked of Morocco, Mom imagined herself inside 
some electric Matissian dreamscape. His offhand mentions of visiting 
his grandmother in the French countryside fired up her Proustian rev- 
eries. She could almost touch the fine porcelain teacups in la grand-mere’s 
salon, hear her pearls rattling gently. Lucien’s tiny gifts — such as a leather 
Moroccan change purse embossed with gold stars — were not mere com- 
modities but totems of distant, mysterious freedoms. “A souvenir from 
the free world to someone locked up in a prison cage,” she now puts it. 

Marriage never came up between them. Lucien stayed for all of two 
weeks. But simply having the non-Russian softness of his palm against 
hers, Mom felt her lifelong alienation blossoming into a tangible shape, 
an articulated desire: to break physically free of Soviet reality. On the 
hot August day in 1957 when Lucien departed, giving her a volume of 
Zola’s Germinal with a passionate Esperanto inscription, she knew that 
she too would leave. Until it happened, almost two decades later, Mom 
imagined that she existed in her own fourth dimension outside the So- 
viet time-space continuum. 




“I was anti-Soviet,” she says. “But at the same time a-Soviet: an in- 
ternal emigre cocooned in my own private ‘cosmopolitan’ microcosm.” 
Her own fairy tale. 

To fill in a void left by Lucien and the Festival, Mom plunged back into 
cooking — but now her kitchen fantasies took a new tack. The Book of Tasty 
and Healthy Food had been retired in scorn. Zagranitsa was the new inspi- 
ration. What did this imaginary Elsewhere actually taste like? Mom 
hadn’t a clue. While she could at least mentally savor the kulebiakas and 
botvinya so voluptuously cited by Chekhov and Gogol, Western dishes 
were mere names, undecoded signs from alternative domestic realities. 
The absence of recipes provided a certain enchantment; you could fill in 
these alien names with whatever flavors you chose. 

Always stubbornly cheerful and good-natured about the paucity of 
ingredients in stores, Mom turned her parents’ kitchen once more into 
a dreamer’s home workshop. She may well have been the first woman 
in Moscow to make pizza, from a recipe “adapted" from a contraband 
issue of Family Circle lent to her by a friend whose father once worked 
in America. Who cared if her “pizza” bore a resemblance to a Russian 
meat pirog, only open-faced and smothered in ketchup and gratings of 
Sovetsky cheese? No ingredient, really, was too dreary for Mom to sub- 
ject to a tasty experiment. 

“Today I’ll make pot-au-feu!” she’d announce brightly, eyeing a 
head of decaying cabbage. “I read about it in Goethe — I think it’s soup!” 

“Tastes like your usual watery shchi,” her brother, Sashka, would 

Mom disagreed. Just renaming a dish, she discovered, had a power 
to transfigure the flavor. 

Every couple of weeks a letter from Lucien would arrive from Mo- 
rocco. “ Mia kariga eta Lara — my dearest little Lara,” he always began. “My 
heart is wrenched,” he wrote after a year. “Why doesn't kariga Lara an- 
swer me anymore?” 

By then kariga Lara was madly in love with somebody else. Somebody 


1 950S.- Tasty and Healthy 

named Sergei, somebody she thought looked uncannily like the French 
film heartthrob Alain Delon from Rocco and His Brothers, which she’d 
seen at an Italian film festival. 

★ ★ ★ 

My mother and father met at the end of 1958. She was twenty-four; he 
was three years younger. My parents met in a line, and their romance 
blossomed in yet another line, which I guess makes me the fruit of the 
Soviet defitsit (shortage) economy with its ubiquitous queues. 

Your average Homo sovieticus spent a third to half of his nonworking 
time queuing for something. The ochered’ (line) served as an existential 
footbridge across an abyss — the one between private desire and a collec- 
tive availability dictated by the whims of centralized distribution. It was 
at once a means of ordering socialist reality; an adrenaline-jagged blood 
sport; and a particular Soviet fate, in the words of one sociologist. Or 
think of the ochered’ as a metaphor for a citizen’s life journey — starting 
on the queue at the birth registry office and ending on a waiting list for 
a decent funeral plot. I also like the notion of ochered’ as “quasi-surrogate 
for church” floated in an essay by Vladimir Sorokin, the postmodern- 
ist enfant terrible whose absurdist novel The Queue consists entirely of 
fragments of ochered’ dialogue, a linguistic vernacular anchored by the 
long-suffering word stoyat’ (to stand). 

Tom stood? Yes, stood. Three hours. Got damaged ones. Wrong size. 

Here’s what the line wasn’t: a gray inert nowhere. Imagine instead an 
all-Soviet public square, a hurly-burly where comrades traded gossip and 
insults, caught up with news left out of the newspapers, got into fistfights, 
or enacted comradely feats. In the thirties the NKVD had informers in 
queues to assess public moods, hurrying the intelligence straight to Sta- 
lin’s brooding desk. Lines shaped opinions and bred ad hoc communi- 
ties: citizens from all walks of life standing, united by probably the only 
truly collective authentic Soviet emotions: yearning and discontent (not 
to forget the unifying hostility toward war veterans and pregnant women, 
honored comrades allowed to get goods without a wait). 



Some lines, Mom insists, could be fun, uplifting even. Such were the 
queues for cultural events in Thaw-era Moscow— culture being a dejitsit 
commodity, like everything else. Thanks to Khruschev’s parting of the 
Iron Curtain, Moscow was flooded with cultural exports back then. 
Scoffield as Hamlet, Olivier as Othello, the legendary Gerard Philipe 
doing Corneille; Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble led by his widow . . . Sto- 
kowsky, Balanchine, Bruno Walter — Mom devoured it all. And that’s 
not counting domestic treasures: Shostakovich performing his piano 
quintet or the balletic comet Galina Ulanova. “I stood in line so much, 
I had barely a moment to eat or inhale,” Mom likes to boast. 

Like lines for cars and TV sets that could last months, years even, 
the Cultural Queue moved according to a particular logic and order. A 
whisper or a formal announcement of an upcoming tour set the wheel 
turning. A “line elder”— a hyperactive high-culture priest — would 
spring into action by starting the spisok (list). Still an eternity away from 
the ticket sale, friends took turns guarding the box office, day in and day 
out, adding newcomers to the all-powerful spisok, assigning numbers. 
Many of Mom’s friendships formed at the roll calls requiring every- 
one’s presence. These resembled intelligentsia parties but were hosted 
on freezing sidewalks where the cold cracked your boots, or in gusty 
May when winds unleashed torrents of white poplar fluff. 

“AHA! Here comes treacherous Frumkina!” cried Inna, the 
dark-haired “line elder,” when Mom, once again, was unforgivably late 
for the French ballet roll call. 

“AHA! Treacherous Frumkina!” mocked a stranger, so skinny, so 
young, with green liquid eyes offset by a vampiric pallor. Mother glared 
at him. But that night she kept thinking about how much he resembled 
Alain Delon. 

In the end, the French ballet canceled. But Mom now kept noticing 
Sergei in different lines, finding herself more and more drawn to his 
shy cockiness, his spectral pallor, and most of all to his cultural queuing 
cred. In that department, Dad was a titan. 


7950S.- Tasty and Healthy 

Sergei, my father, grew up neglected. Alla had him young, at nineteen. 
When he was a teenager, she was still stunning, a six-foot-tall bleached 
blonde war widow with a penchant for vodka, swearing, billiards, and 
cards, besides a busy career (city planning) and an even busier love life. 
During her assignations— married men usually— at their one room in a 
nightmarish communal apartment, Alla shooed Sergei out of the house. 
Dad spent most days on the streets anyway, a typical post-war fatherless 
youth, apathetic, cynical, disillusioned. One day he walked out of his 
squalid building and went rambling past the grand columned facade of 
the Bolshoi Theater with its chariot of Apollo rearing atop the Ionic 
portico. Dad was whistling. A five-ruble bill was in his pocket, a fat 
sum at the time, a gift from a rich uncle for dad’s fifteenth birthday. 
Sergei was strolling in sweet anticipation of how he could spend it when 
a scalper sidled up. 

Five rubles for one fifty-kopek seat to Swan Lake at the Bolshoi — 

On a lark. Dad handed over the fiver. Mainly because even though 
he passed the Bolshoi almost daily, he’d never been inside. A massive 
red velvet curtain inlaid with myriad tiny hammers and sickles rose 
slowly into the darkness. By the time it went down and the lights came 
on. Dad was hooked. Back in those days Moscow worshipped at the 
exquisite feet of Galina Ulanova, the soaring sylph regarded as the 
twentieth century’s most heartbreakingly lyrical ballerina. The entire 
performance Sergei felt as if he himself were floating on air. And so 
Dad became a professional Ulanova fan, seeing everything else at the 
Bolshoi and at the Moscow Conservatory for good measure. He soon 
scalped tickets himself. Dated long-necked swan-ettes from the Bolshoi 
corps de ballet. 

His science studies, meanwhile, passed in a blur. Arrogant by 
nature, bored with mechanics and physics, he kept dropping in and 
out of prestigious technical colleges. Right before the exams in his 
final year, Alla was home after surgery and she roped him into an 
intense three-day vodka-fueled card game. Sergei never showed up 
for the exams, didn’t graduate, didn’t care. The Cultural Queue was 
his life and his drug. He did literal drugs, too, codeine mostly, hence 



his vampyric complexion. Upon checking into a clinic, he was advised 
by helpful Soviet doctors that the best way to kick a drug habit was to 
drink. A lot. Which he did. 

★ ★ ★ 

The day before ticket sales started, the Cultural Queue climaxed in 
a raucous marathon of actual standing all the way to the finish line. 
It could last twelve hours, sometimes eighteen, all-nighters that left 
Mom physically drained but charged with adrenaline. The final push! 
One morning at the end of May, Larisa and Sergei staggered from 
the box office window like a couple of triumphant zombies. Tickets 
to all five performances of Leonard Bernstein’s New York Philhar- 
monic, still months away, were nestled in their pockets. Mom bought a 
green-capped bottle of buttermilk and kaloriynie bulchoki, feathery buns 
studded with raisins, and they collapsed on the long, arching bench 
by the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory. Its neoclassical bulk 
gleamed custard-yellow in the morning sun. Mom and Dad kissed for 
the first time under the statue of a seated Tchaikovsky summoning his 
music. Men with lumpy briefcases were plodding to work. Burly women 
in kerchiefs hawked the season’s first lilacs. 

For a few weeks Larisa and Sergei were inseparable. Then he cooled. 
He behaved like a smug, mysterious cat, appearing and then vanishing, 
passionate one minute, listless and disengaged the next. By July he was 
gone. The cultural season was over. Days turned into weeks with no 
news of him, summer was passing, and Mom’s insides twisted in a knot 
when someone whispered that Sergei was involved with Inna, the line 
elder. Inna with her glossy black hair, luminous skin, and a rich father. 

All of Moscow, meanwhile, stood in another line, not as epic and 
devastating as the lines at Stalin’s funeral, but as long and tedious as the 
ochered’ at Lenin’s mausoleum. They were standing to taste Pepsi-Cola 
at Sokolniki Park. Even my despondent mom was among them. 


J950S: Tasty and Healthy 

Well before the official opening of the American National Exhibi- 
tion, Muscovites streamed to Sokolniki in the north of the city to see 
what was up, or, rather, what was going up. Amid the raw greenery, U.S. 
construction workers were helping to erect Buckminster Fuller’s spec- 
tacular geodesic dome, all thirty thousand golden, anodized aluminum 
square feet of it. Even the workers’ colorful hard hats provoked wild 

To urban intelligentsia, Amerika, imagined from novels and music 
and movies, loomed as a fervently desired mythical Other. Khrushchev, 
too, was obsessed with Amerika. Nikita Sergeevich displayed the typical 
H. sovieticus mix of envy, fascination, resentment, and awe. (He would 
impetuously tour the United States later that year.) While ‘‘churning 
out missiles like sausages,” as he liked to boast, the verbose, erratic 
premier simultaneously blathered on about “peaceful coexistence,” 
promising to beat capitalist frenemy number one nonviolently — “in 
all economic indicators.” Dognat’ i peregnat’ (catch up and overtake), 
this was called — the long-standing socialist slogan now recast to tar- 
get the mighty Yanks. As in, “Let’s catch up and overtake America in 
dairy and beef production!” Comrades on the streets knew the score, 
though. “We’d better not overtake,” went a popular wisecrack, “or the 
Yanks will see our bare asses!” Less cynical Americans, meanwhile, 
stocked their shelters against Red ICBMs and had nightmares about 

In such a heated context, Russia floated a temporizing gesture: a 
first-ever exchange of exhibitions of “science, technology and culture.” 
The United States said yes. The Soviets went first. At the New York 
Coliseum in June 1959, three glistening Sputniks starred with their 
insectlike trailing filaments and a supporting cast heavy on models of 
power stations and rows of bulky chrome fridges. 

A month later in Moscow, on about a third of the Soviets’ budget, 
the Yanks retorted with consumerist dazzle — acre upon acre of it at So- 
kolniki Park. Almost eight hundred companies donated goods for the 

“What is this,” thundered Izvestia , “a national exhibit of a great 
country or a branch of a department store?” 



Cannily, it was both. 

As a girl Mom had visited the socialist fairyland of the All-Union 
Agricultural Exhibition in Moscow. Now, exactly two decades later, 
just a mile or so away in Sokolniki, here she was in the Potemkin village 
of consumer capitalism. Which was more overwhelming? Mom usually 
giggles and rolls her eyes when I ask. 

Inside Bucky’s golden dome, seven giant screens positioned over- 
head by the designers Charles and Ray Eames flashed with their 
composite short film Glimpses of the USA. Mom stood open-mouthed, 
blinking hard as 2,200 still photos pulsed through a “typical” work- 
day and Sunday in suburban America, closing on a lingering image of 

“Nezabudkt . . .” Mom murmured along with the entranced crowd. 

Beyond the dome waited an empire of household stuff in the Glass 
Pavilion. Inside stood a model apartment, outside, a model home. A 
Corvette and a Caddie enticed oglers. There were abstract expres- 
sionist paintings to puzzle over, a book exhibit to filch from, Disney’s 
360-degree Circarama travelogue of America to crane at. Fashion mod- 
els ambled along runways while decadent jazz played and ever-smiling 
American guides answered all comers in fluent Russian. One of the 
guides was having a fling with Mom’s close friend Radik. My mother 
couldn’t get over this amerikanka’s non-Soviet directness and her fantas- 
tic big teeth. 

In this setting, on press preview day, July 25, the spontaneous dia- 
lectic known as the Kitchen Debate erupted between Nikita and Nixon. 
Tension was still running high over the Western insistence on contin- 
ued free access to West Berlin, surrounded as it was by East Germany. 
Khrushschev was agitated further by the U.S. Congress’s renewal of its 
annual “Captive Nations” Resolution to pray for Iron Curtain satellite 
countries. He carried a chip on his shoulder, vowing not to be overawed 
by America’s vision of bounty. Nixon in turn hankered for the i960 
Republican presidential nomination. He had to look tough. 

Cue the scenario at Sokolniki: 


7950s: Tasty and Healthy 

Straw-hatted NK (Nikita Khrushchev) hectors RN (Richard Nixon) 
that Russia will soon surpass America in living standard. Waggles his 
fingers “bye-bye” as if overtaking the U.S., guffaws for cameras. 


RN leads NK over for a taste test of the sole product the U.S. has 
been permitted to give out as a sample. Pepsi will eventually be the 
first American consumer item available in the USSR. “Very refresh- 
ing!” NK roars. Guzzles six Dixie cupfuls. Soviet men ask if Pepsi 
will get them drunk. Soviet women pronounce Russian kvass tastier. 
Some skeptical comrades compare the smell to benzene-— or shoe 
wax. Over the next six weeks “disgusted” Soviets will gulp down 
three million cups. Country babushkas toting milk buckets will stand 
in line multiple times — to the point of fainting — to bring a taste of 
flat, warm pepsikola back to the kolkhoz. Like everyone else, Mom will 
keep her Dixie cup as a relic for years. 


NK and RN relock horns at GE’s streamlined kitchen in the pre- 
fab tract house nicknamed “Splitnik” (for the walkway put in for the 
show). Behold the sleek washing machine! The gleaming Frigidaire! 
The box of SOS soap pads! 

NK (lying): You Americans think the Russian people will be aston- 
ished to see these things. The fact is, all our new houses have this 
kind of equipment. 

RN (lying): We do not claim to astonish the Russian people. 

In the debate’s iconic photo, the accompanying throng includes the 
hawk-nosed Mikoyan, who had tried to wangle Coke’s recipe back 
in the thirties, and a young bushy-browed bureaucrat, one Leonid 




After an early dinner and toasts with California wine, the debat- 
ers view a second, hyper-futuristic deluxe hearth. The dishwasher 
is movable and scoots on tracks. The robotic floor sweeper is 

N K (scoffing): Don’t you have a machine that puts food in your 
mouth and pushes it down? 

Secret polling later showed that Russians were equally unimpressed by 
the Miracle Kitchen. Voters rated it last. Jazz ranked first, along with 
Disney’s Circarama. But so what? To U.S. minds the exhibition was its 
finest cold war propaganda action ever, and it was pronounced so. 

My mom didn’t vote in the poll. But to her surprise and dismay, she 
found herself among those underwhelmed by the kitchen. If anything, 
it left her feeling more lonely and down than before. She wanted to love 
the American exhibition, almost desperately she did. Had counted on 
it to be a vision of pure zagranitsa, to spirit her out of her socialist gloom, 
away from the deeper, more wounding gloom of her heartache. But for 
days afterward, she imagined cheery Yankee housewives trapped and 
frightened amid their sci-fi fridges and washing machines. She couldn’t 
picture herself— ever — cooking her “pot-au-feu” shchi in one of those 
blinding steel pots. This paradigm of happiness, fashioned from plastic 
tumblers, bright orange juice cartons, extravagantly frosted, unnaturally 
tall American layer cakes, seemed just as miserably phony as anything 
in the Kniga. It violated her intimate, private dream of Amerika. In any 
case, domestic bliss, whether socialist or capitalist, seemed more elu- 
sive than ever. She ate a slice of black bread with a raw onion ring now 
and then, that was all, and though it was August, buried herself under 
the scratchy beige woolen blanket with her blue-green volume of Swann’s 
Way. The Soviets had stolen the lovely Russian term for “companion” 
and “fellow traveler” and fixed it to a glistening ball of metal hurtling 
through darkest space. Sputnik. Swann, suffering at Odette’s infideli- 
ties, was Mom’s sputnik in misery. There was still no word from Sergei. 


J950S: Tasty and Healthy 

And then on a dank September day, crossing a pedestrian underpass 
near the Bolshoi, she ran into him. Sergei looked pale, defenseless, and 
shivery. Larisa handed him three rubles; he seemed badly in need of a 
drink. He took it and walked off, gaze averted. 

A few weeks later the doorbell rang at her parents’ house in the 
Arbat. It was Sergei — returning the money, he said. Oh, and something 
else. “I’ve been running into all these ballerinas,” he mumbled, “so se- 
ductive and pretty in their bell skirts. But I have this short Jewish girl 
on my mind . . . you are the one.” 

This is how my father proposed. 

Mom should have slammed the door right then and locked it and 
dived back deep under the scratchy beige blanket and stayed there. In- 
stead, she and Sergei formalized their love on a gray December after- 
noon in 1959, after three months of living together. 

My parents’ generation, the generation of the Thaw, scoffed at white 
dresses and bourgeois parties. Mom and Dad’s uncivil non-ceremony 
took place at a drab ZAGS registry office near the Tretyakov Art Gal- 
lery. Outside, a wet snow was falling. 

Under her shapeless coat with squirrel trim, Mom wore her usual blue 
hand-sewn poplin blouse. Sergei yet again looked pale and disheveled; 
he’d knocked back a hundred grams — rubbing alcohol, was it? — with 
buddies at work. But my parents’ spirits were good. Everything amused 
them in the dingy reception area. Pimply sixteen-year-olds waiting for 
their very first Soviet internal passports. Non-sober families, and a 
war invalid with his accordion serenading nervous couples reemerging 
from their assembly-line knot-tying. On this occasion Mom didn’t even 
mind the institutional smell of galoshes and acrid disinfectant that had 
nauseated her ever since her first elections in 1937. 

A tiny head peeped out of the marriage hall area. 

“Next couple!” 

My parents passed through a vast hollow room beautified by a pair 
of forlorn chandeliers into a smaller room, this one bare save for a giant 



portrait of Lenin thrusting an arm out and squinting. The arm pointed 
conspicuously in the direction of the toilet. Behind a crimson-draped 
table sat a judge fringed by two dour clerks. The wide red ribbons 
draped across their gray-clad chests gave them the appearance of mov- 
ing banners. 

The judge cast a suspicious glance at Mom’s homemade blouse. Her 
small face resembled a vydra’s (an otter’s), squished below a towering 

mouth suddenly boomed like a megaphone at a parade — “WE CON- 

Mom clenched her jaw tight. She looked up at the ceiling, then 
over at squinting Lenin, then at Sergei, then exploded with hysterical 

“STOP THIS DISGRACE, COMRADE BRIDE,” thundered the vydra, 

ded, fighting the next eruption of laughter. 

“RINGS!!!” shouted the vydra. 

Mom and Dad had none. 


Ditto the witnesses. 

The vydra didn’t bother with further felicitations. My parents didn’t 
seem worthy of the customary wishes of good luck in creating a new 
socialist family. 


The vydra shoved a stack of documents across the red table. 

Mom picked up the heavy blue fountain pen with a sharp, menacing 
metal tip. The vydra snatched it away and whacked it across my mother’s 


Three months after being assaulted with a fountain pen, Larisa 
moved into her mother-in-law’s communal apartment, where eighteen 
families shared one kitchen. 




My mother and me the evening before we emigrated, 1974 


1960s CORN, 

I he year I was born, 1963, is remembered by Russians for one of the 
worst crop failures in post-Stalinist history. War rationing still fresh 
in their memory, comrades found themselves back in breadlines with 
queue numbers scribbled on their hands in violet ink so indelible and 
so poisonous, the joke was that it infected your blood. All over Moscow 
adults enlisted schoolchildren to take their place in the line. For hand- 
ing over as well the extra ration of bread they were allowed, some 
enterprising Young Pioneers made small fortunes charging ten kopeks 
per breadline. 

Coarse and damp was the bread waiting at the end of the line. Not 
just damp, but often oozing weird greenish gunk: the flour had been 
stretched out with dried peas. Still, Moscow was hardly near starva- 
tion. In one of those savory ironies of socialist food distribution, some 
stores carried shrimp and crab from Vladivostok. But regular citizens 
didn’t touch these exotic pink Far Eastern crustaceans out of the pomp- 
ous pages of Kniga. Regular citizens hadn’t a clue what shrimp were. 
People spat hardest at the fourteen-kopek cans of corn stacked up on 
store counters in Giza-scaled pyramids. All corn — no bread. That was ev- 
eryone’s curse for Kukuruznik (Corn Man), the blabbering clown in 
the Kremlin who’d crowned this stupid, alien corn “the new czarina of 
Russian fields.” 



What does the 1963 harvest look like?” went a popular joke. “Like 
Khrushchev’s hairdo (bald).” 

Things were going badly for Nikita Sergeevich. After a stretch of 
prodigious economic boom and scientific achievement, his career was 
belly flopping. There was the bungled Karibsky krizis (Russian for the 
Cuban missiles affair). His Virgin Lands scheme of planting grain en 
masse on the Central Asian steppes, promising initially, was ending 
in a cartoonish fiasco with millions of tons of topsoil simply blowing 
away. And his dairy and meat price hikes in 1962 had erupted in riots 
in the southern city of Novocherkassk. “Khrushchev’s flesh— for gou- 
lash!” railed a protest banner. The State responded with tanks, killing 
twenty-three rioters. 

The massacre was concealed; but the Leader’s kukuruza (corn) disaster 
could not be. Enthralled by a visiting Iowa farmer in 1955, the Bald One 
had introduced corn as the magic crop that would feed Russia’s cattle. 
Corn was forced down human throats too. Khrushchev-look-alike chefs 
sang songs to the new corn in short propaganda films; animated rye and 
barley welcomed this new corn off the train in cartoons. "The road to 
abundance is paved with kukuruza !” went a popular slogan. Maize was 
planted everywhere — while American instructions for proper seeding 
and care were everywhere ignored. After a couple of encouraging har- 
vests, yields plunged. Wheat, neglected, grew in even shorter supply. 
Bread lines sprouted furiously. 

In 1961 at the Twenty-Second Party Congress Khrushchev had 
promised true communism. Instead there was kukuruza. Russians could 
forgive many things, but the absence of wheat bread made them feel 
humiliated and angry. Wheat bread was symbolic, sacred. On induction 
into Komsomol, students were asked to name the price of bread. Woe to 
the politically retarded delinquent who blurted out “thirteen kopeks.” 
The correct answer; “Our Soviet bread is priceless.” 

Capitalizing in part on this popular wrath, in October of 1964 a 
Kremlin clique forced Khrushchev from power. For a while papers 
talked about his “subjectivism” and “hare-brained scheming,” about the 
“lost decade.” Then they stopped mentioning him. A previously obscure 
apparatchik named Leonid Brezhnev, now general secretary, ushered 


7960 s : Corn, Communism, Caviar 

the USSR into a new era. Stagnation, the era was later dubbed. The 
age of cynicism and “acquisitive socialism.” The age of bargains, con- 
tracts, and deals, of Brezhnev ’s-eyebrows jokes and Lenin Centennial 
anecdotes— of empty store shelves and connivingly stuffed fridges. 

The dissolution of my parents’ marriage mirrored Khrushchev’s fall. 

A product of the Thaw Era, Mom still retains tender feelings 
toward Kukuruznik. But she can’t help blaming him and his corn and 
the breadlines for what happened with her and my father. 

★ ★ ★ 

About a year before my mother’s troubles began, she sat at a pedsovet, 
the pedagogical council of School No. 112, District 5. Another mean- 
ingless “agitational” propaganda meeting was about to begin. Mother 
felt queasy. The odor of sulfuric acid, potassium hydroxide, and teenage 
stress hormones hung in the air. The classroom they gathered in be- 
longed to Comrade Belkin, the puffy-faced science teacher and font of 
communist consciousness. 

For these endless, poisonous meetings Mom was partially to blame. 
She had spoken up at her very first “agitational” session. Recently hired 
as the school’s progressive young English teacher, she’d been eager to 
flaunt her dissident stripes. It was still the Thaw. Sincerity was the buzz- 
word. Solzhenitsyn’s anti-Stalinist One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich 
had just been published! 

“Comrades!” my mother had begun in her best imitation Moscow 
Art Theater voice. “What have we actually learned from this meeting? 
Why have we sat here listening to Comrade Belkin read aloud the en- 
tire political section of Pravda ? Aren’t piles of homework waiting? Don’t 
some of us have hungry kids to go home to?” 

At the last sentence Mom’s oration trailed off. Nearing the Soviet 
grandmotherly age of thirty, she herself had no kid waiting hungrily. An 
ectopic pregnancy followed by barbaric Soviet gynecological care had 
left her in no shape to conceive, and “home” was a dumpy single room 
she shared with her husband and mother-in-law in a bleak communal 



Tak tak tak. “So, so so,” said the troika: the Labor Union rep, the 
school’s Party functionary, and Citizen Edelkin, the principal. Tak tak 
tak- they tapped their pencils in unison. "Thanks for sharing your views. 
Comrade Frumkina.” 

But the other teachers had been mesmerized by her words. Mom 
caught their grateful, admiring glances. Shortly afterward a sign had 
appeared in the principal’s office: FROM NOW ON: PROPAGANDA 
MEETINGS COMPULSORY. The other teachers started avoiding my 

This new March session droned on and on. So much to discuss. Two 
Young Pioneers had been caught tying their scarlet scarves on a neigh- 
borhood cat. And what to do about Valya Maximova, the third-grader 
spied at gym class wearing a cross under her uniform? Confronted by 
responsible classmates, Valya had confessed: her babushka sometimes 
took her to church. 

Valya’s teacher waved Exhibit A, the confiscated cross, on its neck 
string as if dangling a dead mouse by the tail. 

“That pesky babushka,” said the science teacher Belkin in a loud 
whisper. “Under Stalin such types got twenty- five years.” 

Stalin’s corpse had recently been evicted from Lenin’s mausoleum 
by Khrushchev, so as not to "corrupt” that noblest of cadavers. Invok- 
ing the pockmarked Georgian was uncool. But instead of protesting, 
everyone turned and peered at Larisa. Some weeks before, sacrificing 
her own Sunday, she d taken her pupils to a cemetery, where innocent 
Pioneers had been exposed to crosses galore. She regarded it as a cul- 
tural lesson, a way of lifting the Soviet taboo around death for the kids. 

"Some Young Pioneers report that during the trip you mentioned 
Jesus Christ.” 

Edelkin pronounced this as if Valya’s religious babushka and Larisa 
were fellow opium pushers. 

“Christianity is part of world culture,” Larisa protested. 

Tak tak tak, went the troika. 

Edelkin ended the meeting on an upbeat note. In the case of 
pupil Shurik Bogdanov there’d been serious progress. Poor Shurik 
Bogdanov— an A student, conscience of his class, and champion 


7960S: Corn, Communism, Caviar 

collector of scrap metal. Then he started getting Cs for “behavior.” His 
distraught mother stormed into Edelkin’s office and revealed the whole 
awful story: her husband had been cohabiting with a female colleague 
from his workplace. He intended to leave them. Poor young Shurik was 

“Could the Soviet school save a socialist family?” asked Edelkin with 
a dramatic flourish. Indeed, it could! The Party organization at Bog- 
danov pere’s workplace had been contacted, a public meeting called. 
Shurik’s father and the female interloper had been instructed to cease 
their immoral cohabitation immediately. 

“The father is now back in the family fold,” reported Edelkin, almost 
smirking with pride. Socialist values had triumphed. Would comrade 
teachers chip in for a bottle of Sovetskoye champagne for the couple? 

Mom gasped for air as he finished. The chemical stench of the class- 
room, the intrusion of the kollektiv into some hapless comrade’s love life, 
the bleakness of her own situation . . . Next thing she knew, the entire 
pedagogical council was fanning her with pages of Pravda and splashing 
her with cologne. She had fainted. 

That week the doctor confirmed the impossible: she had fainted be- 
cause she was with child. The troika at school suggested that she needn’t 
bother to return after maternity leave. 

My mother was pregnant, unemployed, and euphoric. 

★ ★ ★ 

Mom remembers pregnancy as the happiest time of her life. She didn’t 
understand why most Soviet mamas-to-be hid their bellies in shame 
under layers of baggy rags. Even at eight months she waddled down the 
street as if floating on air— belly forward. Inside her was a girl, she was 
sure of this. It was the girl she’d been dreaming about ever since she 
herself was a schoolgirl. The girl she imagined playing the piano, paint- 
ing watercolors, learning languages in foreign countries, and — who 
knows? — maybe even riding a shiny brown Arabian horse on some ver- 
dant British estate. It was the girl she intended to guard like a tigress 
from the counterfeit Soviet happiness, from that rotten, demoralizing 



split-consciousness, from toska, the anguished, alienated anxiety of her 
own Stalinist childhood. 

Apparently Mom also wanted to shield me from Sputnik and Yuri 
Gagarin and Belka and Strelka, the adorable black and white mutts who 
flew into space. My mother hated the kosmos; that preposterous futuris- 
tic final frontier of Soviet imperialism. At age five I was forced to hide 
my profound crush on Yuri Gagarin from her and weep in secret when 
the smiley kosmonavt died in a plane crash at the age of thirty-four. But 
I’m grateful Mom didn’t name me Valentina, after Valentina Teresh- 
kova, the first woman in space. I look nothing like Valentina. Mom 
named me instead after one of her favorite poems by Anna Akhmatova. 

‘At baptism I was given a name — Anna, Sweetest of names for human lips or 

Anna, Annushka, Anya, Anechka, the irreverent An’ka. The 
peasant-vernacular Anyuta and Anyutochka, Nyura and Nyurochka. 
Or Anetta, in a self-consciously ironic Russified French. Or the lovely 
and formal Anna Sergeevna (my name and patronymic)— straight out 
of Chekhov s The Lady with the Dog.” The inexhaustible stream of 
diminutive permutations of Anna, each with its own subtle semiotics, 
rolled sweetly off my mother’s lips during pregnancy. 

Her baby daydreams usually reached fever pitch in the food lines. 
Surrounded by disgruntled citizens muttering Khrushchev jokes, 
Mother drew up imaginary lists of the foods she would feed to her little 
Anyutik. Unattainable foods she knew only from her reading. O mar. 
Lobster. So noble-sounding, so foreign. Definitely pizza and pot-au-feu. 
And when the child was just old enough: Fleurie. Everyone swigged it in 
the novels of Hemingway, that most Russian of American writers. Yes, 
yes, definitely carafes of Fleurie, with snails dripping garlicky butter 
and parsley sauce. Followed by cakes from her beloved Proust. Madlenki, 
Mom called them in Russian, with the clumsy proprietary familiarity 
of someone who lived and breathed Proust but still thought madeleines 
were a species of jam-filled pirozhki. 

Occasionally Mom would get lucky in the lines. She still talks of 
the day she victoriously lugged home five kilos — ten pounds — of vobla 
to last her the entire final trimester. Have I mentioned vobla before? It’s 


I 960 s: Corn, Communism, Caviar 

the rock-hard, salt-encrusted dried Caspian roach fish. Rock-hard vobla 
sustained Russians through the revolutionary teens and twenties, the 
terrible thirties, the war-torn forties, the liberating fifties, and the rol- 
licking sixties— until the Caspian was so depleted that in the stagnant 
seventies of my childhood vobla became a sought-after delicacy. Vobla 
brings out that particular Russian masochism; we love it because it’s 
such a torment to eat. There’s the violent whacking against a table to 
loosen the skin, followed by the furious yanking of the petrified leath- 
ery flesh off the skeleton. There’s self-inflicted violence, too— a broken 
tooth here, a punctured gum there — all to savor that pungently salty, 
leathery strip of Soviet umami. Vobla was the last thing my mother ate 
before being rushed to Birthing House No. 4- This might explain why 
I’d happily trade all Hemingway’s snails and Proust’s cakes for a strip 
of petrified fish flesh. 

From Birthing House No. 4 Mom brought home a jaundice-yellowed 
infant swaddled tight as a mummy into totalitarian submission. Await- 
ing her were the glories of Soviet socialist motherhood. Cribs as elegant 
as a beet harvester. Pacifiers made of industrial rubber you sterilized 
in a water bath for two hours while you hand-copied the entire volume 
of samizdat Dr. Spock. And pelyonki (diapers), twenty per day per So- 
viet child— not including nine flannel over-diapers, and a mountain of 
under-diapers fashioned from surgical gauze. 

These scores of diapers couldn’t simply be bought at a store. In an 
economy where every shred and scrap was recycled, all twenty pelyonki 
were made at home, by cutting up and hand-hemming old sheets. Dur- 
ing the day Mom soaked them in cold water with suds from a brown 
smelly soap bar she grated until her knuckles bled. At night she scalded 
them in a four-gallon bucket on the stove of a communal apartment 
kitchen lacking hot water, then rinsed all twenty under an icy stream 
from the rusted communal tap until her arms were falling-off frozen. 
The weight of maternal love came down on me with full force when 
I learned that each morning she then ironed the twenty pelyonki. Mom 
claims that she loved me so much, she didn’t mind the diaper routine. 



which I guess makes her a Soviet martyr to Motherhood. After she told 
me about it, I went to bed lamenting what a burden I’d been, being 

This was Dad’s sentiment, too. 

Initially he rather enjoyed Soviet fatherhood. He helped with the 
pelyonki. Stood in breadlines after work. Arrived home “tired but joyful,” 
to use a cherished socialist-realist cliche, with heavy, doughy bricks of 
rye inside his string bag. Together he and Mom bathed me in a zinc tub, 
adding disinfectant drops that tinted the water pink. But after three 
months, this life no longer seemed so rosy and pink to Dad. One night 
he didn’t come home. Mom spent sleepless hours running to the single 
black telephone of the entire communal apartment at the far end of the 
endless unheated hallway. The phone was silent, as silent as the alkogo- 
lik Tsaritsin passed out by the kitchen. In the morning Mother put on 
the seductive lilac robe with tiny white checks, a gift from Clara, her 
American aunt, and she waited. She waited long enough to read me the 
entire volume of Mother Goose in both Russian and English. (Humpty 
Dumpty translates as “Shaltai Bahai,” in case you’re curious.) 

A murky February dusk had already descended when Sergei re- 
turned. He had hangover breath and a look of aggressive guilt. It didn’t 
make sense, him having a family, he announced from the threshold. 
“This whole baby business . . .” He let it go at that. He had no real means 
to provide for the family, no energy to endure the breadlines, no real de- 
sire. He yanked off a quilted blanket covering the folding cot in the cor- 
ner. Slowly, demonstratively, he unfolded the cot a safe distance from 
the marital bed and fell asleep right away. Mom says that he snored. 

On occasion Sergei would come home after work, and reenter my 
mother’s bed. Or sleep on the cot. Often he wouldn’t come home for 
weeks. He never bathed me anymore but from time to time he’d pick 
me up and make goo-goo eyes. Mom’s life went on — a wrenching, de- 
moralizing limbo that left her will broken and her heart always aching. 
In her wildest, most daring fantasies Larisa hoped for one thing now: 
a half-basement room of her own where she and I would have tea from 


7960 s: Corn, Communism, Caviar 

colorful folkloric cups she’d once seen at a farm market. Happiness to 
her was those cups, those artisanal cups of her own. 

Mom’s purgatory lasted three years. 

By the standards of the massive and perpetual housing crisis that 
pushed half the Soviet population into far more suffocating arrange- 
ments than ours, three years was a virtual fortnight. Anna Akhmatova, 
my genius namesake, was brought into a communal apartment at the 
Fountain House (formerly Sheremetev Palace) in Leningrad by her 
longtime lover, Nikolai Punin. His ex-wife lived with them. After the 
lovers’ breakup, both Akhmatova and the ex-wife remained in the flat, 
with nowhere to go, while Punin brought home new lovers. Follow- 
ing Punin’s arrest, Akhmatova continued to shuffle through a series 
of rooms at the same apartment (which now houses a tenderly curated 
museum). Memoirists recall how she and her ex-lover’s ex-family all 
sat at the dinner table, not talking. When Akhmatova s son came back 
from the gulag he slept on a sunduk (trunk) in the hallway. At the Foun- 
tain House Akhmatova spent almost thirty years. 

I too slept on a sunduk in the drafty hallway of my grandparents’ 
Arbat apartment when, in despair, Mom would run back to Naum and 
Liza. It was the same blue lightweight trunk that during the war saved 
Liza’s family from starvation. My grandparents’ two tiny rooms were 
already overcrowded with Mom’s brother and my three-year-old cousin, 
whose mother had her own marital difficulties. So Mom slept on a cot 
in the kitchen or next to me in the hallway. In the archaeology of Soviet 
domestic artifacts, the raskladushka — a lightweight aluminum and khaki 
tarp folding cot on which entire lives had been spent ranks, perhaps, 
as the most heartbreaking and the most metaphoric. It also damaged 
millions of backs. 

★ ★ ★ 

My mother was fortunate to have her marriage collapse in 1964. 

In the late fifties, the composer Dmitry Shostakovich, best known 
for epic symphonies, scored Moskva, Cheryomushki , a rollicking operetta 
pastiche satirizing the housing shortage. In 1962 it was turned into a 



film. Sasha and Masha, its young protagonists, have a marital crisis that 
is the inverse of my parents’ mess: they’re recently wed but forced by 
the dreaded “housing issue” to live apart, each with his or her family. 
My favorite bit is the campy Technicolor dream sequence when Sasha 
and Masha go waltzing through their imaginary new digs— private 
digs!— singing “Our hallway, our window, our coat hanger . . . Nashe, nashe, 
nashe: ours ours ours.” In the film’s socialist Hollywood ending, corrupt 
housing officials taste defeat and the lovers finally nest in their ugly new 
prefab flat — nashe nashe! — in the Cheryomushki district. 

Cheryomushki in southwestern Moscow was, in fact, quite real, the 
country’s first mass development of private apartments. Similar hous- 
ing blocks went shooting up in the sprawl of other outlying mikrorayoni 
(micro-districts). They were the Bald One’s low-cost revision of the So- 
viet domestic fairy tale: an escape from the hell of forced communality. 
At long last the nuclear family had a promise of privacy. 

It’s hard to overestimate the shift in consciousness and social re- 
lations brought about by this upsurge of new housing. Initiated by 
Khrushchev in the late fifties, the construction continued well beyond 
him, into the eighties. It was the country’s biggest lifestyle transforma- 
tion since the 1917 revolution, and represented probably the Bald One’s 
greatest social achievement. 

By 1964 close to half the population— almost 100 million people- 
had moved into the new, bare-bones units slapped up quick and shoddy 
from prefab concrete panels. Soviet stats boasted that the USSR was 
churning out more apartments per year than the USA, England, France, 
West Germany, Sweden, Holland, Belgium, and Switzerland combined. 
Who doesn’t remember those endless housewarming bashes where we 
sat on the floor and ate herring off a newspaper, garnished with en- 
ticing whiffs of wallpaper glue? The prefabs put an end to the era of 
ornate, lofty-ceilinged, elite Stalinist housing. No longer just for nomen- 
klatura and Stakhanovites, material well-being (such as it was) was now 
touted as a birthright for all. Khrushchev wanted to offer us a preview 
of the promise of full communism, shining bright just beyond Mature 
Socialism. And like Iosif Vissarionovich before him, Nikita Sergeevich 


I960s: Corn, Communism, Caviar 

bothered with the details. The Mustachioed One sniffed the soap. The 
Bald One tested and approved the standardized unitaz (toilet). 

It was not large, this unitaz. Private dwellings were in no way meant 
to provoke bourgeois aspirations or rampant individualism. The ver- 
nacular name for the new prefabs, after all, was khrushcheba, a con- 
traction of Khrushchev and truscheba (slum). What’s more, the new 
egalitarian residential spirit expressed itself in crushing architectural 
uniformity. Boxlike elevatorless blocks, usually five stories high, held 
multiple tiny dvushki (two-roomers). Ceiling height: two and a half me- 
ters. Living room: fourteen square meters. Bedroom: always the same 
eight square meters. For cooking, eating, talking, guzzling vodka, 
sipping tea, chain-smoking, doing homework, telling political jokes, 
playing the seven-string Russian guitar, and generally expressing your- 
self, the now-legendary “five-metrovki”— shorthand for the minuscule 
fifty-square-feet kitchens— fondly remembered later as incubators of 
free speech and dissent. The expression “kitchen dissident” entered the 
lexicon from here. Dissidence was an unintended but profound conse- 
quence of Khrushchev’s housing reforms. 

The unrelenting sameness of the khrushchebas weighed heavily on the 
Soviet soul. “Depressing, identical apartment buildings,” wrote Alex- 
ander Galich, a well-known bard and singer of the time, forced into 
exile. “With identical roofs, windows, and entrances, identical official 
slogans posted on holidays, and identical obscenities scratched into 
the walls with nails and pencils. And these identical houses stand on 
identical streets with identical names: Communist Street, Trade Union 
Street, Peace Street, the Prospect of Cosmonauts, and the Prospect or 
Plaza of Lenin.” 

Most of the above applied to the long-awaited new home we finally 
moved into in 1966. With a couple of major exceptions. Our street 
was called Davydkovskaya, not Lenin, Engels, Marx, or, God forbid, 
Mom’s dreaded Gagarin. Full address: Davydkovskaya, House 3, Frac- 
tion 1, Structure 7. At first, yes, Mom and 1 wandered forever trying 



to find it among identical blocks surrounded by pools of mud. But the 
neighborhood — Davydkovo, part of the Kuntsevo district- wasn’t de- 
pressing. It was rather charming, in fact. A former village in the west- 
ern reaches of Moscow, it was a twenty-minute drive from the Kremlin 
along a wide, arrow-straight road. In former times Davydkovo was 
known for its bracing air and for the nightingales that sang from the 
banks of a fast-moving, shallow river called Setun’. A short walk from 
our Khrushchev slum rose a beautiful forest of fragrant tall pines. The 
pines shaded a massive green fence surrounding the closed-up dacha of 
a certain short, pockmarked Georgian, deceased for over a decade and 
rarely mentioned. 

Mom swears we owed our khrushcheba joy to a ring and a miracle. It all 
began with a whisper— someone, somewhere, tipping her off to a wait- 
ing list for apartments that moved surprisingly swiftly. But there was a 
catch: the flat was a co-op requiring a major down payment. Which is 
where the ring and supposed miracle enter the picture. An art nouveau 
folly of dark-yellow gold in the shape of a graceful diamond-studded 
bouquet, the band was a post-war present to Liza from Naum, celebrat- 
ing their survival. Babushka Liza lacked bourgeois instincts; I’ve always 
admired that about her. Having worn the ring once or twice, she tossed 
it into her sewing box. She was mending socks when Mom told her about 
the impossible down payment. The ring— so Mother swears— glinted at 
Liza with magical force. Miraculously a buyer materialized, offering the 
very seven hundred rubles (six monthly salaries) needed for the down 
payment. The entire family took it as an omen, and nobody was upset 
when they later learned that the ring was worth at least five times that 

And so, here we were. 

Our sauerkraut fermented under a wooden weight in our very own 
enameled bucket on our mini-balcony. From our windows hung our cur- 
tains, sewn by Mom from cheapo plaid beige and brown linen. Our 
shoe-box-size fridge, which Boris, the drunken plumber, had affixed to 
a wall because there was no space in the kitchen. The fridge beckoned 
like a private hanging garden of Babylon. Falling asleep every night in 


J960S: Corn, Communism, Caviar 

the privacy of her own four walls, my mother felt . . . Well, she felt she 
was still living in a Bolshevik communal utopia. 

Our walls were cardboard khruscheba walls. Ukrainian Yulia next 
door wailed at her husband’s philandering. Prim Andrei upstairs re- 
hearsed plaintive double bass passages from Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Sym- 
phony to the guttural ostinato of Uzbek arguments on the ground floor. 
The worst tormentors, Colonel Shvirkin and his chignoned wife, Nina, 
were quiet as mice, but such unacceptably paradisiacal smells of fried 
baby hen wafted from their kitchen that the entire building wanted to 
collectively lynch them. 

My mother couldn’t afford baby hens. After several years of ma- 
ternity leave she still refused to rejoin the workforce. Relatives chided 
her, but she insisted she had to spend every second with her little Anyu- 
tik. And so we lived essentially on Dad’s forty-five-ruble alimony, less 
than half of the pitiful Soviet monthly wage. Occasionally Mom added 
a pittance by giving an English lesson to Suren, an Armenian youth 
with fuzz on his lip and a melon-bosomed mother with fuzz on her lip. 
“Larisa Naumovna! I understood everything !” Suren would bleat. “Ex- 
cept this one strange word everywhere. T-k-he?” Which is the Russian 
pronunciation of the. 

After utilities and transportation. Mother had thirty rubles left for 
food. Nowadays she recounts our ruble-a-day diet with glee. It’s the 
same girlish giddiness that lights up her face whenever she describes 
cleaning houses for a living in our first year in America. In those early 
dissident days, poverty— or I should rather say pauperism— carried an 
air of romance, of defiance. 

One Soviet ruble comprising one hundred kopeks; that crumpled 
beige note with a hammer and sickle encircled by an extravagant wheat 
wreath. Mom spent it wisely. 

“Not too rotten please, please,” she beseeched the pug-faced 
anti-Semite Baba Manya, at the derevtashka (“a little wooden one”), our 
basement vegetable store with its achingly familiar reek of Soviet decay. 



A discolored cabbage there set you back eight kopeks; likewise a kilo 
of carrots. The potatoes were equally cheap and unwholesome. Mom 
filled our general grocery needs at the stekliashka (“a little glass one”), a 
generic nickname for glass and concrete sixties service constructions. 
The store lay across a scrappy ravine. On her way she nervously fingered 
her change. Thirty kopeks for a liter of milk, she was calculating, and 
a fifteen-kopek refund for the bottle. Thirty-two kopeks for ten eggs, 
three of them usually broken, which could last us a week. 

A few coins remained for animal proteins from a store invitingly 
named the Home Kitchen. This was a lopsided wooden hut left over 
from Davydkovo’s past as a village, a dystopian apparition that sat tee- 
tering in a garbage-strewn field. Whichever direction you came from you 
trudged through the garbage. It was like going into combat. Tall rubber 
boots; iodine in Mom’s pocket in case a rusted can slashed through my 
footwear. In winter, alcoholics “graffitied” the snow around the Home 
Kitchen with piss, spelling out the word khut (dick). Just so you know: 
pissing letters while under the influence requires great skill. 

At the Home Kitchen, Mom handed over twenty-four kopeks 
for 125 grams of “goulash” meat. The store also carried kotleti with a 
meat- to-fi Her ratio that recalled another Khrushchev-era joke. “Where 
does the Bald One hide all the bread? Inside the kotleti.” Mom didn’t 
buy them; we were poor but proud. 

In our own five-meter home kitchen I assigned myself the task of 
inspecting the goulash and alerting Mom to its blemishes. The multi- 
colored universe of imperfections contained in a single chunk of beef 
was endlessly fascinating to me. If the beef had been frozen, refrozen, 
and thawed again, the crosscuts offered an eye-pleasing contrast of 
bloody purple and gray. Sinew and fat practically shimmered with an 
ivory palette. The bluish spots on beef that had sat around for too long 
acquired a metallic glow; if the light hit them right you could see an 
actual rainbow. And the seal— how I loved the bright violet State seal of 
“freshness” stamped on some lumps of flesh. 

Trimming away imperfections reduced the four-ounce beef package 
by half, but Mom was resourceful. Perched on a white stool, I watched 


1 960s: Corn, Communism, Caviar 

her slowly turn the handle of the awkward hand-cranked meat grinder 
she screwed onto the windowsill. My heart went out to her. In other 
families fixing the meat grinder in place was the husband’s job. Mom’s 
always wobbled in that defenseless feminine way. More often than 
not she ground the goulash with onions and bread into frikadelki, tiny 
meatballs she’d then float in a broth fortified by a naked soup bone. 
When a romantic mood struck her, she’d add cabbage and call the soup 
pot-au-feu, explaining how she’d read about this dish in Goethe. I 
rather preferred this Weimar pot-au-feu to the stew she prepared with 
the goulash and a frozen block of guvetch, the vitamin-rich vegetable me- 
lange from Socialist Bulgaria with a slimy intervention of okra. I har- 
bored a deep mistrust of Socialist Bulgaria. 

On Sundays Mom invariably ran out of money, which is when she 
cracked eggs into the skillet over cubes of fried black sourdough bread. It 
was, I think, the most delicious and eloquent expression of pauperism. 

We were happy together, Mom and I, inside our private idyll, so 
un-Soviet and intimate. She saved her kopeks to leave lovely, useless 
gifts on my bed every few days. A volume of Goethe’s Faust in a purple 
binding, for instance. (I was four years old.) Or a clunky weaving loom, 
which I never once used. For my fifth birthday, there was a recording, 
in Russian, of Oscar Wilde’s The Nightingale and the Rose. It was just the 
two of us celebrating. Mom splurged and made roast duck stuffed with 
sauerkraut. She turned off the light, lit the candles, put on the record. 
A heartbreaking voice droned: “The Nightingale pressed closer against 
the thorn . . . and a fierce pang of pain shot through her. Bitter, bitter 
was the pain, and wilder and wilder grew her song, for she sang of the 
Love that is perfected by Death.” 

By the end of it I was hiccupping with birthday sobs. 

I too lavished my mother with presents, usually paintings that tact- 
fully avoided Soviet themes: nothing with a CCCP logo, no Yuri Gaga- 
rin grinning from his space helmet. I wasn’t so blatant as my friend Kiril, 
whose entire painterly opus revolved around desirable East German toy 
railway sets. My artworks were subtler. I specialized in princesses, ge- 
neric but always modeling feminine imported outfits and outsize nylon 



bows in their braids. My antimaterialist mom didn’t budge. She contin- 
ued to dress me in shabby boy’s clothes and cut my hair in the shape of 
a bowl. She thought this looked charming. 

“My Anyuta!” she’d coo to her friends. “Doesn’t she look just like 
Christopher Robin from my beloved E. H. Shepard illustrations?” 

In my mind I devised excruciating tortures for Christopher Robin 
and Winnie the Pooh, but I didn’t hold anything against Mom. As I 
said, we were happy together, basking in mutual adulation like besotted 
newlyweds in our khruscheba nest. Until Mom’s compulsive hospitality 
syndrome went and interfered. 

★ ★ ★ 

The mud outside had dried, and fragrant May breezes rattled the 
skinny apple trees below our third-floor window when Oksana and 
Petya showed up on our doorstep. 

Mom spotted them in the goulash line at the Home Kitchen and 
liked them immediately. She’d never seen them before, but overhearing 
their conversation filled her with compassion. The pair was temporar- 
ily homeless and intended to spend the night in the train station. Mom 
swiftly offered our house. 

The doorbell rang the next day. There stood a man with a droopy 
mustache and bluish circles under his eyes. His entire lower half was 
obscured by a vast Saint Bernard. 

“Meet Rex,” said Petya. “Go ahead, hug him hello.” 

It was like an invitation to cuddle a delivery truck. Overwhelmed 
by the dog, I hadn’t noticed the boy lurking behind Petya. He was a 
pudgy teenager with a gloomy expression, a sickly complexion, and arms 
weighed down by two cages. The bigger cage contained a white owl. 
Inside the second cage, mice, also white, scurried and squeaked. “Oleg,” 
said the gloomy boy. I couldn’t tell whether it was his name or the owl’s. 
“Don’t be afraid of the mice,” he said reassuringly. “Oleg will soon eat 

Plodding steps on the concrete staircase below announced Ok- 
sana’s arrival. She was out of breath and disheveled, a Jewish beauty 


7960s: Corn, Communism, Caviar 

with cascades of frizzy black hair falling wildly over a large glass box 
she hugged in her arms. “A terrarium,” she panted. “Ever seen a real ter- 
rarium?” 1 had, at the Moscow Zoological Park. But never a python 
slithering this close to my face. Igor, the serpent was called. Oleg and 
Igor, as if from a medieval Slavic epic. 

“Igor and Oleg eat the same mice,” announced the boy, suddenly 

Gogol’s play Inspector General ends with a famous silent tableau called 
the “mute scene.” At the news of the arrival of the real inspector gen- 
eral, the entire cast freezes in horror. This was approximately how Mom 
greeted the unexpected menagerie. 

“You . . . you didn’t mention you had a, um, son" was all she could 

“Who, him? It’s Oksana’s bastard,” replied Petya, with a jovial wink. 

For the following five months, living arrangements in our 
two-roomer were as follows: The gloomy youth lived on a cot in the 
five-meter kitchen. Big Rex, as the largest and most pedigreed member 
of our strange kollektiv, had the run of the premises, sometimes leaping 
onto the lightweight aluminum cot in my room where Mom now slept. 
For fear of being crushed by the canine truck, Mother stopped sleep- 
ing. Or perhaps she didn’t sleep because Oksana and Petya, taking after 
their owl, led a mysterious nocturnal lifestyle. Most of the day they 
dozed away on Mom’s ex-bed in the living room. At night they rumbled 
in and out of the kitchen, brewing tea and cursing when they bumped 
against the teenager’s cot. “Their tea,” as Mom called their brew, con- 
tained an entire packet of loose Georgian tea leaves for one mug of hot 

My innocent mom. She had no idea that this was the hallucinogenic 
chijir that got inmates high in the gulags. She didn’t know either that the 
grassy-sweet smell that now mingled in our apartment with the animal 
odors was anasha, a Central Asian hashish. Violent arguments followed 
the couple’s intake of anasha and chijir. The whole building quaked from 
the pounding of neighbors on our walls, floor, and ceiling. The couple 
and the owl took turns disturbing the sleep of hardworking socialist 
households. The owl’s guttural screeching curdled the blood. 


But the biggest dilemma was getting in and out of the house. Be- 
cause Igor the serpent lived in the hallway. Anyone entering and exiting 
was treated to the sight of a python devouring albino mice procured by 
the youth from Medical Institute No. 2, where Oksana’s cousin worked 
in a lab. I spent most of the five months barricaded inside my room. 
The only person who still visited us was the double bassist upstairs; he 
enjoyed borrowing Igor to frighten his mother-in-law. Baba Alla, my 
grandmother, schlepped her bags of chicken and other tasty tokens of 
grandmotherly love all the way to Davydkovo and left them down on 
the doorstep. Usually Rex ate the chicken. 

It was Dad who finally ended all this. He missed having a family. 
Hinted that if Mom cleared the coast, he’d come stay, at least on week- 
ends. My father was, and would remain, my mother’s only true love. 
Oksana, Petya, Rex, Igor, Oleg, and the gloomy boy were exiled imme- 
diately, a sullen departing procession of people and cages and four thud- 
ding paws leaving behind a stench of zoo and hashish. Every flat surface 
of our brand-new dwelling space was scarred by burn rings from their 
kettle. I now acquired a semi-father in place of a python and an owl, one 
who delivered high-quality weekend offerings from a store called Dieta, 
a prestigious purveyor of cholesterol-laden items meant for the young 
and the infirm. Every Friday evening I listened impatiently for the turn 
of Dad’s key in the door, leaping into the hallway to greet Dieta’s but- 
termilk jellies and rich, crumbly cheese sticks. Recently Mom asked 
me whether I ever felt my father’s abandonment. Flashing back to the 
cheese sticks and especially to the white, quivery, scallop-edged jellies, 

I had to say no. 

Mom and I never did recover our intimate idyll. In 1961 the Supreme 
Soviet of the USSR had passed a law branding as “parasites” any citi- 
zens who refused to engage in socially meaningful labor. Punishment: 
up to five years of exile or internment in camps. The law acquired some 
notoriety in the West in connection with Joseph Brodsky the dissi- 
dent poet convicted of parasitism and forced into international exile. 
Although she was still technically married, with a young child, and 


196 Os.- Corn, Communism, Caviar 

thus exempt from the law. Mom felt afraid and uneasy about not work- 
ing. And so finally, on a brittle December day in 1968 when I was five 
years old, she reengaged in socially meaningful labor. She began a job 
teaching English at the Ministry of Merchant Marines, and I went to 
my very first Soviet kindergarten. I don’t remember all that much of 
the place, only that it was located across desolate train tracks from our 
khrushcheba, and that on my first morning there I soiled myself, I guess 
from separation anxiety, and for the entire day nobody attended to me. 
Mother discovered my shame on the way home. I still retain an image 
of her crying on the train tracks. 

It never got any better. My fellow kindergarten inmates began fall- 
ing ill from the spoiled meat in the borscht. Then on the bus Mother 
overheard my teacher instruct a younger colleague on how to reduce 
class sizes: “Open the windows — wide.” It was minus thirty degrees 
outside, and gusting. 

Reluctantly, Mom turned to her father. 

★ ★ ★ 

By the time I knew him, Colonel Naum Solomonovich Frumkin, my 
granddad the spy, looked nothing like the dapper, dark-eyed charmer 
we met in the 1940s chapter. Now long retired, Dedushka Naum had 
scant hair and heavy black-framed eyeglasses, and did morning calis- 
thenics to patriotic songs. And he bellowed — he bellowed all day. 

der into the phone. “My dear, esteemed Comrade . . . [insert name of 
appropriate admiral of Soviet fleet].” 

It amazed me how Granddad always found reasons to congratulate 
somebody — until I discovered the squat tear-off calendar he kept by 
the phone. Each new page announced a fresh, bright Soviet day, a new 
joyous occasion. Aviation Day, Baltic Fleet Day, Transport Policeman’s 
Day, Tank Driver’s Day, Submarine Officer’s Day. And let’s not for- 
get the all-out lollapalooza of Victory Day on May 9, which Granddad 
began observing with his customary barrage of salutations in April. 

The bombastic Brezhnev-era myth of the Great Patriotic War and 



its cult of the veteran animated Dedushka’s retirement. When he wasn’t 
shouting felicitations, he was bustling about on some all-important 
veterans’ business. Much of this bustle involved Richard Sorge, the 
half-German, half-Russian master spy we left two chapters ago, be- 
trayed by Stalin, hanged in Tokyo, and long since forgotten— until a 
fluke led to his miraculous resurrection. In the early sixties the French 
made a feature film about Sorge ’s story and tried to sell it to Russia. The 
Soviet Ministry of Culture deemed the whole thing a malicious falsifi- 
cation, but Khrushchev’s bodyguard tipped his boss off to the film. The 
Bald One demanded a screening. 

“This is how all art should be made!” pronounced the excited 
Khrushchev when the lights came up. “Even though it’s fiction, I was 
on the edge of my seat.” 

“Um . . . Nikita Sergeevich,” he was told, “Sorge wasn’t, um, fic- 
tion, he was, um, actual.” Khrushchev instantly rang the KGB. They 
confirmed both Richard Sorge ’s actuality and his intelligence record. 
Without further ado, Khrushchev anointed him a posthumous Hero 
of the Soviet Union and ordered that he be celebrated as Soviet Spy 
Number One. 

Sorge books, Sorge scholars, long-lost Sorge relatives, Sorge films, 
Sorge buttons and postal stamps . . . Granddad was in the eye of this 
never-ending Sorgian typhoon. A few times I accompanied Dedushka 
Naum in his uniform and medals to his Sorge talks at rest homes or 
trade union concerts. Granddad was usually stuck on the entertain- 
ment program between an amateur folk songstress in a cornflower 
wreath wailing about the unrequited love of a factory girl, and, say, an 
amateur illusionist. People stayed for the cornflower lady, left to smoke 
when Naum came on, then returned to see the illusionist. 

“Disgraceful! Nobody respects the veterans!” some bemedaled au- 
dience member would grumble. My palms would grow sweaty and my 
face would turn the color of summer tomatoes. 

In approaching her father for help, Mother faced a moral dilemma. 
Despite only narrowly escaping arrest during the Purges— to say 


J 960 s: Corn, Communism, Caviar 

nothing of General Zhukov’s threat of execution for insubordination — 
Granddad remained an idealistic communist of the old Bolshevik 
school. Exploiting Party privileges for personal gain offended his prin- 
ciples; by nomenklatura (Communist elite) standards he and Grandma 
lived modestly. Mom’s principles were offended for different reasons. 
This was 1968, the year Soviet tanks rolled into Prague, crushing all 
liberalizing hopes in a consolidation of Brezhnevian might. The Thaw 
was well over. Mother’s anti-Soviet dissident zeal was at its peak, match- 
ing Granddad’s fervent loyalty to the system. So explosive was their re- 
lationship, so profound her disgust for the State Granddad represented, 
that she with her sister and brother even threw out his archives. Among 
the things lost was an autographed edition of Mao Zedong’s military 
writings and, yes, some significant Sorge memorabilia. 

It goes without saying that Mother was loath to ask Granddad for 
any favors involving his Party blat (connections). But there was simply 
no other way to resolve my situation. 

And so Mother swallowed her principles and pleaded with Grand- 
dad. He swallowed his principles and dialed a certain admiral’s phone 

The next day I was enrolled at the kindergarten for the offspring of 
the Central Committee of the USSR. 

Upon hearing that the kindergarten’s boarding setup meant I’d 
be staying over Monday to Friday, day and night, I shrieked with a 
five-year-old’s anguish. Mother herself looked ashen. She was relieved, 
yes, to save me from dysentery and pneumonia. But she would miss me 

And then there was the dreaded nomenklatura angle. The idea of a 
privileged Soviet caste and its coddled offspring enjoying politically in- 
correct delicacies was appalling to her. We spent half our lives queuing 
up for gristly goulash or tinned sprats. They dispatched their chauffeurs 
to “closed supply depots” — those unmarked warehouses that dispensed 
sevruga and sturgeon and tongue, and instant coffee, that most elusive 
of luxuries. Or at least we imagined so. In a society that guaranteed 



equality for all, the dining mores of the ruling elite were concealed from 
the rest of us. To Mother and her dissident intelligentsia friends, nomen- 
klatura flavors fairly reeked of complicity. 

“Shhh about the food at the kindergarten,” Mother warned me as 
we trudged through the snow. “And don’t learn any Lenin songs.” 

The Central Committee kindergarten, boxy and light-bricked, sat be- 
hind a tall wire enclosure in the thick, dark, resinous Kuntsevo woods. 
Close by, hidden behind a sixteen-foot green wooden fence, brooded 
Stalin’s dacha. It was heavily guarded, mysterious, and had been locked 
up since he died there on March 5, 1953. Although the Brezhnev regime 
was making moves to rehabilitate him, in the popular imagination Sta- 
lin’s name remained fraught, a semi-taboo. The entire neighborhood 
knew nevertheless that the tall pines had been put there in 1933 on 
personal orders from the nature-loving Generalissimo. His orders had 
brought about the hills surrounding the forest, too— so uncharacteristic 
of pancake-flat Moscow. Did the dacha really have a secret underground hunker 
with a tunnel leading straight to the Kremlin? everyone wondered. Kerchiefed 
babushkas hawking potatoes on roadsides whispered to customers that 
he had been poisoned by the Jews. Local alcoholics, meanwhile, didn’t 
dare take their bottles into the woods, spooked by rumors of a restless 
mustachioed ghost, and by truer tales of uniformed comrades shooting 
at trespassers. 

On the way to the kindergarten I wept uncontrollably, fearful of 
fences and ghosts (though secretly pleased, I admit, with the lyrical ici- 
cles that my tragic tears formed on my cheeks). 

Inside, everything reeked of prosperity and just-baked pirozhki. 
The Lenin’s Corner was particularly resplendent, with its white gladi- 
oli arrangements beneath Ulyanov family photos arranged like icons 
on a crimson velvet bulletin board. On a panoramic veranda facing the 
haunted woods, nomenklatura offspring snoozed al fresco, bundled like 
piglets in goose-feather sleeping bags. I had arrived during Dead Hour, 
Soviet for afternoon nap. 


J 960 S: Corn, Communism, Caviar 

“Wake up, Future Communists!” the teacher cried, clapping her 
hands. She grinned slyly. “It’s fish-fat time!” I thought she meant fish 
oil, a bane in a brown bottle administered daily at all kindergartens with 
cubes of salt-rubbed black bread. Instead, a towering nanny named, I 
still recall, Zoya Petrovna approached me with a vast spoon of black 
caviar in her hand. It was my first encounter with sevruga eggs. They 
smelled metallic and fishy, like a rusty doorknob. 

“Open wide ... a spoonful for Lenin,” the elephantine caretaker 
implored, pushing the spoon at my locked lips. “For Rodina — for the 
Party!” she wheedled, her voice rising, fish eggs glistening right under 
my nose. I started to gag. 

“You little bedbug!” she bellowed. “Don’t you dare throw up! Or I’ll 
make you eat every drop of your puke!” 

Between the two I chose caviar. But it didn’t seem like much of an 
improvement on vomit. 

It soon became apparent that I wasn’t going to fit in, not at all. I had 
my estranged father’s non-Russian name; my baggy hand-me-down 
Romanian coat; my nausea, which was constant; and my antiestablish- 
ment mother, who recklessly tried to shield me from indoctrination by 
forbidding me to read the beloved Soviet children’s writer Arkady Gai- 
dar or memorize Lenin hymns. I know Mother meant well, but really: 
what was she thinking, bringing me up as an ideological eyesore? Didn’t 
she know that in the USSR “happy” was, and always would remain, a 
mandatory modifier of “childhood”? That for a sad-eyed kid like me, 
the kindergarten had an official term: “non-friendly” — Soviet code for 
dangerously antisocial. 

The intimate Proustian fantasies of my mother collided with the 
scarlet, trumpet-filled socialist epic of a shared Radiant Future, leav- 
ing me in a state of perpetual dazed alienation. My mom’s desire to 
keep me from ever experiencing her Soviet split- consciousness resulted 
in my developing my own, reverse case. At home I dared not confess 
to her that I’d memorized the Lenin songs, by accident, simply by dint 



of hearing them so many times at rehearsals. Even to myself I could 
scarcely admit my enchantment with the forbidden red universe popu- 
lated by the happy grandchildren of Lenin. “Lenin is always with us,” I sang 
softly into my pillow at home on weekends, cringing from shame. “Lenin 
is always alive ... In your each joyous day. Lenin is inside you, and inside me.” 

“Anyutik, we don’t bring that gadost’ (muck) home,” Mom said curtly 
when she overheard me one time. 

Every weeknight at kindergarten, I was, of course, gripped by the 
opposite longing. Not daring to make even a peep in the fearsome pres- 
ence of Zoya Petrovna, I noiselessly hummed Mom’s favorite songs to 
myself. Like the Schubert one about Gretchen and her spinning wheel: 
“My peace is gone, my heart is heavy, I will find it never and never more ...” 

“On your right side— NOW! Arms straight, above the blanket!” 

Like a sergeant inspecting her platoon, Zoya Petrovna surveyed the 
neat rows of beds in the dormitory to make sure we didn’t engage in 
any individualistic, anti-Soviet activity. Scratching, for instance, or get- 
ting up to go to the bathroom. The right side suited me fine. This way 
I could peer out the window at the lights of the brand-new nine-story 
apartment block twinkling in the night’s inky distance. The building 
was part of Brezhnev’s slight improvement on the khrushcheha model: 
nine or thirteen stories instead of five, plus elevators and garbage 
chutes. I lay quietly humming my songs, mentally visiting the cozily lit 
domestic worlds where mothers poured tea into orange polka-dot cups 
before kissing their daughters good night. The women of my imagina- 
tion always had my mother’s short dark hair but not exactly her features. 
I stayed up for hours, counting and recounting the windows remaining 
illuminated. As each light was extinguished I felt a pang that gathered 
finally into a wave of lonely desolation when the building went alto- 
gether dark. The windows were lighthouses that shone to me from the 
world outside our tall wire fence. 

In the mornings, more heartache. 1 didn’t care much for my peers, 
but there was a blond, straight-nosed boy with expressive blue eyes, 
Victor, whose dad, also named Victor, was a famous TV personality. 
I didn’t have the same heroic crush on little Victor as I had (furtively) 
on Yuri Gagarin. It was more like a sympathy, a bond of hidden mutual 


] 9605: Corn, Communism, Caviar 

sadness. Victor and I barely spoke, but one time when I threw up and 
everyone teased me, he quickly touched my hair, to buck me up. 

Victor had his own unfortunate issue: he wet his bed. In the morn- 
ing, Zoya Petrovna would yank his blanket off and inspect the sheet, 
then tug him to his feet, pull down his white underpants, and drag 
him to the far end of the dormitory. She then lined up the rest of us to 
march past him. Each kid was instructed to slap the bed wetter’s bare 
bottom. “I hope you didn’t slap him,” Mom would say, horrified by the 
story. But what could I do? As my turn approached, my heart pounded. 

I could neither disobey Zoya Petrovna nor be among Victor’s abusers, 
as he stood there impassively, eyes glassy, with a strangely absent expres- 
sion. I still remember my panic and the sight of his pale flesh as I mock 
raised my arm high, as if for a slap, then gently swiped my hand across 
his buttocks. 

It astounded me how Victor could recover by breakfast and glee- 
fully polish off his farina and tea. Me, I sat gagging at the white puddle 
of cereal on which squatted a cold yellow square of elite Vologda butter 
that refused to melt. 

It was during mealtimes that my alienation gripped me most pro- 
foundly. My struggles worsened with each new politically indigestible, 
delicious morsel I desperately wanted to eat but knew would horrify 
Mother. I threw up. I contemplated going on hunger strike, like a Tatar 
dissident she’d told me about. Then a desperate inspiration came to 
me. Next to my table was a radiator, an old-fashioned ridged one with 
enough of a gap to the wall to fit a whole week’s worth of discarded pro- 
visions. And so, when no one was looking, I started dumping the Party 
elite delicacies behind it. First went the veal escalopes sauced with por- 
cini mushrooms picked by our own young hands under fragrant Stalin- 
ist pines. Next, the macaroni, which unlike our coarse pasta at home 
was fine and white and lavished with gooey cheese imported from the 
glamorous (though occasionally not-so-friendly) homeland of Marshal 
Tito. Away went the prestigious cod liver pate, away went the whole- 
some, farm-fresh cottage cheese pudding with lingonberry kissel. 

But the sweets served with our afternoon tea — those I couldn’t 
bring myself to dispose of. In our happy classless society, candies were 



the most brutally clear signifiers of status. Sticky proletarian toffees 
called Iris-Kis-Kis and rock-hard rust-hued delights known as Crayfish 
Tails tormented the fillings of the masses. Of higher status and avail- 
able only sporadically were chocolates like Little Bears in the North, 
with a picture of white bears on ice-blue wrappers. Ah, what a romantic 
candy the northern bear was! It spoke of the Arctic expanses our Soviet 
explorers were yet to conquer. And then there were Chocolate Rab- 
bits, those big green-foil-wrapped white elephants of the socialist defitstt 
economy. Priced at nine rubles a kilo (a tenth of the average monthly 
salary), rabbits were always available, and utterly scorned for being so. 
Only traffic cops, flush from bribes, famously moronic and devoid of all 
taste, were enthusiastic consumers of them. “Traffic cops buy their kids 
Chocolate Rabbits as payoff for forgetting to fetch them at kindergar- 
ten,” the saleslady in our local candy store used to say with a sneer. 

Our kindergarten sweets were off this scale altogether. Like most 
Moscow candies, they were manufactured by the Red October Choco- 
late Factory, Mikoyan’s pet confectionary. Only recently have I learned 
that Red October produced two versions of the sweets: one for the 
People, the other for the Party. Nomenklatura chocolates had the same 
names— Squirrel, Red Poppy, Hail to October— and wrappers that 
looked the same as those on their proletarian doubles. But they pos- 
sessed a vastly superior flavor thanks to exalted ingredients. As a kin- 
dergartner I had no idea about any of this. I did know that our candies, 
hefty in weight and wrapped smartly in classy matte paper, exuded 
power and privilege. Unable to eat — or toss — something so status-laden, 
let alone imagine sharing it with my friends outside the fence, I stashed 
the sweets inside my underwear bag. 

My food dumping went well until a smell began to rise from behind 
the radiator. First it was a disagreeable whiff, then a noxious stench that 
caused everyone to scream foooo and bolt away from the wall. It was Zoya 
Petrovna who discovered my decomposed pile. Mother was immediately 
summoned, with me, to the director’s office. A small, sniffling woman, 
the kindergarten director had mothy hair pulled into a tight bun and 
the colorless Slavic features of a career apparatchik : in Mother’s mind 
doubtless a high-ranking KGB informant. She was formidable despite 


J960s: Corn, Communism, Caviar 

her size. Once she’d attacked a flasher who loitered by our fenced-off 
playground, pounding him with her sharp-edged handbag. The flasher 
fled with a genuinely terrified expression. 

“Your child, Comrade Frum-kina,” commenced the director, enunci- 
ating mother’s Jewish surname with a meaningful curl of her lip, “your 
child doesn’t really belong to our kollektiv . . ."Was I being expelled from 
the Central Committee kindergarten? Was Mother going to lose her 
job — or worse? In a panic I rushed out to the dormitory and grabbed 
my precious underwear bag. 

Mother brought me home on a sled, yanking it over the snow slopes 
with uncharacteristic aggression. I felt for her, a woman alone with no 
childcare. But then again, she had only herself to blame — raising me as 
a non-friendly kid, alienating me from the kollektiv — traumatizing my 
appetite with her dissident nonsense! Moodily, I pulled a candy out of 
my bag. It was called ananas. First I sucked on the crunchy chocolate 
shell, then slowly licked my way toward the center. The filling was so 
excruciatingly luscious with the synthetic-exotic flavor of pineapple, I 
shuddered. To mollify Mother, I decided to offer her the last remain- 
ing spectacular centimeter. I expected her to groan and topple into the 
snow, paralyzed with ecstasy and guilt by the taste. But she just absent- 
mindedly chewed and kept pulling the sled. 

The following Monday I was back among the Georgian’s pines, gag- 
ging on caviar behind the tall wire kindergarten fence. 

And Khrushchev? In his lonely, depressing retirement, he occupied 
himself with growing corn at his dacha. 




W here does Homeland begin?” 

So wondered a popular croonful tune of the seventies performed 
in that saccharine Mature Socialist tone that instantly infantilized the 

“With a picture in your alphabet book? . . . That birch tree out in 

the fields?” 

Russians of my mother’s age, who spent most of their living hours 
standing in line, might insist that Rodina (Homeland) began with 
avoska. From the word avos ’ — “with any luck” — this expandable mesh bag 
lay in wait in the pocket of every Russian, a stubborn handful of hope 
that defitsit Moroccan oranges or Baltic sprats might suddenly appear 
at some drab corner store. Our luck sack was a triumph of Soviet op- 
timism and industrial strength. Inside the avoska you could practically 
fit a small tractor, and the sturdy cotton thread resisted even the sharp 
corners of the triangular milk cartons — yes, the blue and white leaky 
ones that dripped their accompaniment as you walked. 

My generation, children of the Stagnation Era who now tend to dote 
on their Mature Socialist childhoods, might joke that Rodina began 
with their first black market jeans, or bootlegged Beatles LP. Or per- 
haps it began with the Young Pioneer parades where we sang Rodina 
songs, adding a nearly silent U in front of the R, which transformed the 
word into urodina : ugly hag. 



That subversive hiccup before the R— this was the seventies. You 
could be disrespectful to Rodina and still enjoy four fun-filled August 
weeks at a Young Pioneers’ camp— paid for by the State. 

I, of course, experienced no such regime-sponsored enjoyment. My 
cruel mother wouldn’t send me to camp, and she kept me home sick on 
that festive spring day in 1973 when our entire class was inducted into 
Young Pioneers. Never did I stand on Red Square making a five-finger 
salute to the clattering of drumbeats and the squawks of bugles. Never 
felt the garlicky breath of Vassa, our school’s Pioneer leader, as she fum- 
bled with the knot of the scarlet tie around my neck. Never solemnly 
swore to "love Rodina, to live, learn, and struggle, as Lenin bequeathed, 
and as Communist Party teaches us.” Luckily, School no considered 
me a de facto Pioneer anyway and let me wear the tie, that small, sacred 
scrap of our Rodina’s banner. 

As for where Rodina really began . . . Well, maybe it began, for all 
of us, with salat Olivier: with the colorful dice of cooked potatoes, car- 
rots, pickles, hard-boiled eggs, peas, and some protein to taste, the lot 
smothered in a sharp, creamy dressing. Apparatchiks, impoverished pen- 
sioners, dissidents, tractor drivers, nuclear physicists— everyone across 
our eleven time zones relished salat Olivier, especially in the kitschy, 
mayonnaise-happy seventies. Borscht was banal; Uzbek pilaf or Geor- 
gian walnut chicken a little exotic, perhaps. But Olivier was just right, 
unfailingly festive and special on account of such defitsit items as canned 
Hungarian Globus-brand peas and tangy Soviet mayo, which was al- 
ways in stores but never without a long line. Birthdays, engagements, 
dissertation-completion bashes, farewell parties for Jews who were em- 
igrating (these sometimes felt like funeral wakes)— there was no special 
“table” without salat Olivier. 

And who doesn’t remember big cut-crystal bowls of salat Olivier at 
New Year’s celebrations where families gathered in front of their tele- 
vision sets waiting for the Kremlin clock to strike twelve, and for Dear 
Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev to adjust his reading glasses, rattle his medals, 
thunderously clear his throat, and then shuffle his papers in a desperate 
scramble to locate the first line of his New Year’s address? 

The first line was always the same: "Dear Compatriots!” 


1970S: Mayonnaise of My Homeland 

Nowadays Mom and I must have at least a thousand various salad reci- 
pes in our collective repertoire. I like Thai and Catalan. Mom has per- 
fected the simple green salad, possibly the hardest one of all to master. 
Hers has toasted pine nuts and chewy dried cranberries to punctuate a 
shallot vinaigrette veiling impeccable lettuce leaves. It’s as non-Russian 
as food ever gets. And salat Olivier? We don’t make it often, and never 
idly, careful not to disturb its aura of festiveness. A precious heirloom 
of our non-idyllic socialist pasts, the Olivier recipe gets pulled out from 
the memory drawer to commemorate a particular moment in life. 

One day Mom decides that it’s time once again. Her sister, Yulia, is 
coming to visit from Moscow. We will throw a party and Olivier will 
anchor the appetizer spread. 

I arrive to help with the cooking. Mother’s apartment, overheated as 
always, is permeated by the sweet, earthy smell of boiled root vegetables. 
In the dining nook off the kitchen, the potatoes and carrots sit, cooked 
in their skins— awaiting their transformation into salad. We peel, chop, 
chatter As often happens in Mom’s dining nook, time and space begin 
to blend and compress. A taste of a Lebanese pickle that uncannily re- 
sembles a Russian gherkin leads to a snippet from a Rodina song, which 
in turn rouses a political morality tale, or reawakens a recollection of a 
long-ago dream, of a fleeting pang of yearning. 

Piling potato, carrot, and pickle fragments into a bowl, I think that 
Olivier could be a metaphor for a Soviet emigre’s memory: urban legends 
and totalitarian myths, collective narratives and biographical facts, jour- 
neys home both real and imaginary — all loosely cemented with mayo. 

We keep chopping, both now lost in our own thoughts. 

★ ★ ★ 

I am seven when the grandest Olivier feast I can remember occurs. 
Tables are pushed together in a cavernous kitchen unevenly lit by greasy 
dangling bulbs. Potbellied men haul in chairs; women in splotched 
aprons dice and mince. A banquet is being prepared in a shared kitchen 



inside a long four-storied building on Kuybishev Lane, two minutes by 
foot from the Kremlin. 

Were in the kommunalka, the communal apartment into which I was 
born. Where I heard Misha the black marketeer puke out his delicacies; 
where Dad’s mother, Babushka Alla— Baballa, we call her— still lives; 
and where Mom spent three agonizing years after my birth until we 
moved out to Davydkovo. 

We don’t live in Davydkovo anymore, by the way. Before my first 
school year, Dad decided that he did want a family full time— but only 
if we moved to the center of Moscow. In a bureaucracy-defying maneu- 
ver, Mom finagled a dwelling swap between herself and her parents. 
Naum and Liza moved to our apartment, where bracing walks awaited 
among Stalinist pines, and we took over their central two-room flat in 
the Arbat, only one metro stop away from Baballa’s kommunalka kitchen. 
Which is where we’re crowded this evening. 

I visit Baballa here every weekend, often staying overnight in her 
dank, high-ceilinged room. On our sleepovers Grandma and I play 
cards and dine on no-fuss frozen dumplings followed by the “Snowhite” 
meringue torte she has toted home from the elite canteen at Goss- 
troy, the State Construction Committee where she earns a whopping 
260 rubles a month. I’m in awe of Baballa: her swagger with vodka and 
billiards, her three-tiered slang, her still-sexy looks. She’s my playmate 
and role model, the one who pressured Mom to allow me to grow my 
hair long just like hers. Whenever construction workers whistle at her, 
I wink and whistle back proudly while she slanders the offenders in 
a voice roughened by a lifetime of Belomor cigarettes. Baballa is the 
world s coolest granny. But her kommunalka simultaneously fascinates 
me and scares me so much, I get butterflies in my stomach each time 
I visit. 

★ ★ ★ 

Bolshevism did away with private life, Walter Benjamin noted after 
his 1927 visit to Moscow. Describing a communal apartment, he 
wrote: “One steps through the hall door— and into a little town.” It’s 


1970$: Mayonnaise of My Homeland 

a poignant image, Magrittian almost. Except that the “town” in Ba- 
balla’s apartment forty years later wasn’t that little: more than fifty peo- 
ple jammed into eighteen rooms situated along a long narrow hallway. 
Unheated, with water-stained walls and no lights — the bulb was per- 
petually stolen and bartered by the alkogolik Tsaritsin— the hallway was 
a canyon of terror and peril for me. There you could catch pneumonia, 
fracture an ankle stumbling over the passed-out body of the self-same 
Tsaritsin— or worse. The worst? The ghoulish figure of demented old 
Mari Vanna, who meandered about in her torn once-white nightgown 
with a chamber pot in her hands. If she was feeling frisky she’d tilt it 
toward your feet. 

I won’t share details about the communal bathroom other than 
the fact that its three toilet cabins were separated by plywood, through 
which the peeper Vitalik liked to drill holes. Next to this peeper’s gal- 
lery lay the shared kitchen. 

Please note that there is no word for "privacy” in Russian. 

Fittingly, the kitchen of Baballa’s apartment constituted a multi- 
functional public space, abustle with all manner of meaningful collec- 
tive activities. Here were some of its functions: 

AGORA: Glorious news of overfulfilled Five-Year Plans blasts from 
the transistor radio suspended above the stove. Neighbors discuss grave 
political issues. “Motherfucking Jew-traitor Maya Spiro from room 
number six conspiring against the Soviet Union again.” MARKETPLACE: 
“Nataaaasha . . . Saaasha . . . Trade me an onion for half a cup of buck- 
wheat?” BATHHOUSE: Over a kitchen sink women furtively rub black 
bread into their hair. Furtively, because while bread is believed to pro- 
mote hair growth, it is also a sacred socialist treasure. Its misuse could 
be interpreted by other neighbors as unpatriotic. LEGAL CHAMBER: 
Comrades’ Court tries neighbors for offenses, including but not limited 
to neglecting to turn off the kitchen lights. A more serious crime: steal- 
ing soup meat from the pots of your neighbors. In Baballa’s rambling 
flat, the thief is a tiny, aristocratic-looking old lady whose mournful ex- 
pression sometimes resolves into a beatific smile that seems glued to her 
face. To combat her theft, some neighbors hang skull-and-bones signs 
over their pots; others put padlocks on lids. LAUNDRY ROOM: As you 



enter the kitchen on a cold dark winter morning, half-frozen stockings 
swaying from clotheslines flagellate you in the face. Some neighbors get 
angry. The tall blond Vitalik grabs scissors and goes snip-snip-snip. If 
stockings were imported, a fistfight ensues. The communal apartment 
kitchen turns into an EXECUTION SQUARE. 

People cooked, too, in communal kitchens; cooked greasy borscht, 
shchi, kotleti, and kasha. The petite fireball pensioner Valentina Pe- 
trovna, who babysat me sometimes, baked the world’s most amazing 
pirozhki, seemingly out of thin air. Misha’s mom. Baba Mila, fried suc- 
culent defitsit chicken tenders that Mother pilfered. Eating, however, 
was something neighbors did in the ideologically suspect privacy of 
their own rooms. In the entire memory of Baballa’s apartment, that 
salat Olivier feast was the only exception. 

The occasion was joyous indeed, exceeding the apartment’s very 
bounds. A kitchen expansion on the floor above Baballa’s! 

Inside that kitchen, a door led to a tiny, bare, four-square-meter 
space that had been for years occupied by an old lady we all called 
Auntie Niusha. Miniature and birdlike, with sunken eyes, a sweet dis- 
position, and a pervasive odor of formaldehyde, Auntie Niusha loved 
her job as a morgue attendant, loved sharing inspirational stories about 
washing cadavers. One day Niusha herself left this world. Not because 
neighbors added ground glass to her food to acquire her room, as some- 
times happened in other communal apartments. Oh no no no— truly 
and genuinely! Auntie Niusha died of natural causes. 

Her death, everyone hoped, would result in a much-needed kitchen 
expansion. The upravdom (the building’s manager) had other ideas. Al- 
though the apartment above Baballa’s was already dangerously over- 
crowded even by the nine-meters-per-person standard, the upravdom 
instantly registered a new tenant in Auntie Niusha’s room in exchange 
for a bribe. One evening people came home from work to find a notice 
from the Housing Committee. The next morning, it said, a new tenant 
would be claiming Auntie Niusha’s dwelling space. 

“Fuck the upravdom ’ s mother!” screamed the Tatar janitor. 

Over my dead body,’ howled the Jewish expert in Sino-Soviet 


J970S: Mayonnaise of My Homeland 

And so, in a feat of passionate and— for once— genuine communality, 
the communal apartment above Baballa’s sprang into action. They per- 
formed their Stakhanovite labor in the night’s slumbering darkness, so 
as not to attract the attention of informers on other floors. 

By morning the door and walls had been brought down and the 
rubble trucked off. The entire expanded kitchen floor had been re- 
painted, the seams between the kitchen and Auntie Niusha’s former 
room sanded down and the space filled with kitchen furniture. 

The kitchen was now four square meters larger. Not a trace of 
Niusha’s dwelling space remained. 

The upravdom arrived bright and early with a new tenant. The tenant 
was dangling keys to Auntie Niusha’s room on a key ring shaped like 
Lenin’s profile. 

“Bastards! Motherfucking traitors of Rodina!” roared the upravdom. 
“Where’s the room?!” He started kicking the wall in front of which 
Auntie Niusha’s room had stood. 

Everyone went speechless with fear. It was after all illegal to alter a 
dwelling space. Only Octobrina stepped forward. 

She was an exotic creature, this Octobrina. Of uncertain age, her 
fire-engine red hair always in rollers, her eyes wandering, her lips 
curled in a perpetual amorous smile. A not altogether unpleasant delu- 
sion possessed her. She was convinced both Stalin and Eisenhower were 
madly in love with her. “He sent me a cable to say ‘I miss you, my dove,”’ 
she’d announce every morning in the line for a toilet. "Who— Stalin or 
Eisenhower?” the alkogolik Tsaritsin would mutter grumpily. 

“Room? What room?” Octobrina said, staring innocently and las- 
civiously straight into the upravdom’ s eyes. “Please leave, my dear, or I’ll 
telephone Comrade Stalin this minute.” It was a good thing she didn’t 
invoke Eisenhower. Or maybe she wasn t so mad after all. 

Stalin had been dead for almost two decades. Still, the upravdom 
stepped back and instinctively shuddered. Then he sucked in his cheeks 
with great force and let out a blistering spit. Against the kollektiv he was 
powerless. Anyway, bribes for rooms— that wasn’t exactly legal either. 

That night the whole building threw a feast of celebration in the 
new kitchen. Herrings were whacked against the table to loosen their 



skins, then arranged on pristine sheets of fresh Pravda. Vodka flowed 
like the Don. Moonshine, too. In an act as communal as Auntie Niu- 
shas room demolition, all four floors contributed to the construc- 
tion of the salat Olivier. The Georgian family produced bunches of 
scallions— improbably in the middle of winter— to lend the salad a 
summery twang. Neighbors carted in boiled potatoes and carrots and 
pickles; and they dipped generously into their stashes of canned crab- 
meat and Doctor’s Kolbasa. Special thanks went to our Misha, the food 
store manager with a proprietary attitude toward socialist property, for 
the dejitsit peas and a whole case of mayonnaise. I can still picture Oc- 
tobrina in her grime-fringed, formerly frilly housedress, piping mayon- 
naise flowers onto the salad with such abandon, you’d think both Joe 
and Ike were arriving for dinner. After a few bites of the Olivier salad I 
fell into a mayonnaise-lipped stupor. 

I don t recall the exact taste, to be honest, but I assume it was 
pretty fab. 

★ ★ ★ 

Now, in Mom’s tiny kitchen in Queens, she doesn't share my nostal- 
gic glow. “ Foo ! I’ve never had salat Olivier so laden and clunky as the 
one at Baballa’s party,” she exclaims, still dicing the veggies into precise 
half-inch pieces for her more ethereal version. “ Who mixes chicken, kol- 
basa, and crab? Well, I can’t blame her for having less than tantalizing 
memories of Baballa s apartment, where neighbors, straight to her face, 
called her yevreechka (“little kikette”). 

Like every Russian, Mom maintains her own firm ideas of a per- 
fectly composed Olivier. And as with most Soviet dishes, the recipe’s 
nuances expressed social belonging beyond one’s personal flavor prefer- 
ences. Soviets felt this acutely in the Stagnation years under Brezhnev. 
On the surface, the propaganda machine continued to spin out its creak- 
ing myths of bountiful harvest and collective identity; beneath, society 
was splintering into distinct, often opposing milieus, subcultures, and 
tightly knit networks of friends, each with its own coded vocabulary. 


1970s: Mayonnaise of My Homeland 

cultural references, and political mind-set — and, yes, recipes that sig- 
naled how its members felt about the official discourse. 

With salat Olivier, identity issues boiled down mainly to the choice 
of protein. Take for instance militant dissidents, the sort of folk who 
typed out samizdat and called Solzhenitsyn “Isayich (note the ex- 
tremely coded, Slavic vernacular use of the patronymic instead of first 
and last names). Such people often expressed their culinary nihilism 
and their disdain for Brezhnev-era corruption and consumer goods 
worship by eschewing meat, fish, or fowl altogether in their Olivier. At 
the other end of the spectrum, fancy boiled tongue signified access to 
Party shops; while Doctor’s Kolbasa, so idolized during the seventies, 
denoted a solidly blue-collar worldview. Mom’s version— I’d call it arty 
bohemian— featured delicate crabmeat, along with a nonconformist 
crunch of fresh cucumbers and apples to “freshen up the Soviet taste 
of boiled vegetables. 

But Mom’s suddenly not so sure about my homespun semiotics. 

“Eh? Whatever,” she says with a shrug. “In the end didn’t all the ver- 
sions just taste like mayo?” 

So they did! They tasted of the tangy, loose-textured Soviet 
Provansal brand mayo, manufactured for the first time in 1936 and 
taste-tested and approved by Stalin himself. Initially scarce, Provansal 
began to lubricate Soviet consciousness in the late sixties and early sev- 
enties, which is when salat Olivier took center stage at the table. 

★ ★ ★ 

Specifications of a totem: short, 250-gram, potbellied, and made of glass, 
with a tight-fitting lid. If, as Dostoyevsky supposedly said, all Russian 
literature comes out of Gogol’s story “The Overcoat, then what Go- 
gol’s garment was to nineteenth-century Russian culture, the Provansal 
mayonnaise jar was to the domestic practices of Mature Socialism. 

Our Brezhnevian days, so “abundant,” “friendly, and happy, 
were accompanied by a chronic and calamitous shortage of tar a, the 
term for packaging and receptacles. Hence the deep bonds between 



people and their avoskas, into which salesladies would dump fish or 
mea t unwrapped, unless you brought along your own sheets of Pravda. 
Of this time too was the fetishistic adulation that comrades lavished 
on foreign-issue plastic bags— washing them tenderly with a fancy East 
German bath foam called Badoozan, hanging them to dry on the slip- 
shod balcony, parading them at haute soirees the way modern fashion- 
istas show off their Kelly bags. 

Still, nothing matched the use the reuse — value of the mayonnaise 
jar. I toted mayo jars full of nails, needles and threads, and other parapher- 
nalia of socialist junior toil to my school “Labor” classes. Both my babush- 
kas sprouted scallions from onion bulbs in mayonnaise jars. My drunken 
Uncle Sashka used them as a) spittoons, b) ashtrays, and c) drinking ves- 
sels at certain unlovely canteens from which thoughtless comrades had 
pilfered the vodka glasses. When spring came and the first flowers per- 
fumed Moscow air with romance, gangly students carried mayonnaise 
jars filled with lilies of the valley to their sweethearts. (Being short and 
delicate, lilies of the valley and violets, too — were unjustly ignored by 
the Soviet flower vase industry, which favored tall, pompous blooms like 
gladioli.) And which H. sovieticus, strapped for cash three days before pay- 
day, hadn’t stood in line to redeem a sackful of mayo jars for a handful of 
kopeks? Elaborate rituals sprang up around the act of glass redemption. 

Finally, where would Soviet medicine be without this all-important 

WATER, instructed signs at gynecological clinics. And it wasn’t just 
pregnant women: anyone having a urinalysis— routinely required for 
most polyclinic visits had to deliver their specimen in the container 
from the tangy Provansal mayonnaise. 

★ ★ ★ 

My poor mom. She was forced to contribute half her meager salary to 
the Soviet mayonnaise industry. My affliction was the reason. 


J970S: Mayonnaise of My Homeland 

The trouble began when I was eight. My life had actually turned 
fairly rosy by then. I excelled in second-grade Spanish at School iio, 
which my mom had also attended. I devotedly practiced piano for my 
weekly lessons at the prestigious Moscow Conservatory prep school 
near our Arbat house. I even acted in Soviet films on the side, not 
that my celluloid career was anything glamorous. Mainly it involved 
perspiring for hours in thick makeup and polyester costumes from 
fashion-forward Poland while waiting for an inebriated cinematogra- 
pher to be fished out of a drunk tank. On the elaborate period set of 
Tolstoy’s Childhood , however, the costumes were gauzy and gorgeous, 
and the cameraman was fairly sober. But there was another problem: 
the entire juvenile cast became disfigured by boils caused, they said, 
by a viral mosquito gorging itself on young flesh within Ostankino TV 
Film Studios. The casting director herded the children to the Union of 
Cinematographers dermatologist. As the doc examined our boils, I de- 
cided to show him as well an oddly discolored patch on my right ankle 
that had been alarming Baballa. 

The doctor sent me home with a note. On it was a single word, 
which sent Mom and Baballa rushing in past the bearded statue of 
Ilyich outside the Lenin Library. 


I’m not sure exactly how the Soviet Medical Encyclopedia described it. 
But I do remember the conversation between Mom and Dr. Sharapova, 
Moscow’s most in-demand dermatologist, to whom she immediately 
hauled me. 

Sharapova: “Is Anechka an only child?” 

Mom: “Yes.” 

Sharapova, in a treacly voice: “Larisa Naumovna! You are young. 
There will be other children.” 

Mom didn’t want other children. Besides, her reproductive system 
had already been ravaged by socialist gynecology. So began our epic 
battle with scleroderma, which, it became quickly apparent, baffled and 
defied Soviet medics. Vitamin A and vitamin E; massage and physio- 
therapy; a ferociously expensive elite herbal goo called moomiyo used by 



Olympic athletes and cosmonauts; daily penicillin injections; weekly 
cortisone shots; mineral-rich mud from the gaudy and piratical Black 
Sea port of Odessa. All were deployed randomly, in hope of defeating 
this potentially fatal autoimmune disease — one that would most likely 
spread, so Mom was informed in whispers, from my leg to my vital in- 
ternal organs, and shut them all down. We spent the next two years on a 
grinding merry-go-round of doctors, always clutching test samples in a 
trusted mayonnaise jar. While Mom endured yet more shrugs and com- 
passionate frowns in their offices, I gaped at the public health posters in 
grimy hallways of dermatological clinics, which conveniently doubled as 
venereal wards. 


Gnawed-away chins, crumbled noses, cauliflower-like growths — the 
syphilitic faces on those posters are still etched in my memory. Syphilis 
terrified me far more than my scleroderma, since nobody had informed 
me about the fatal part. About syphilis, however, I’d heard plenty 
from our homeroom teacher, a squat brunette with a clenched perm 
and a taste for corporal punishment. “Syphilis is contracted by sharing 
chewed gum and accepting sweets from foreigners,” she never tired of 
proclaiming. Guilty of both, every day I’d examine my face in the mir- 
ror for cauliflower-like buds. In the meantime, my scleroderma kept 
creeping up my left leg. When one day the doctor noticed a fresh spot 
on my other leg, Mom plonked into a chair and covered her face with 
both hands. 

Mom’s other heartache was losing her friends. 

Partly in response to Western pressure over human rights, partly to 
purge Zionist elements,” the “compassionate” Soviet State began loos- 
ening the emigration quota for its Jews at the start of the seventies. 
By mid-decade about 100,000 had managed to leave. “Reuniting with 
family in Israel was the official qualification. Some Soviet Jews genu- 
inely headed for their historic homeland.” The majority left on Israeli 
exit visas and then in Vienna, the first refugee transit point, declared 



1970s: Mayonnaise of My Homeland 

their desire to immigrate elsewhere, to the New World mainly. These 
“dropouts” were carted on to Rome to await American refugee visas. 

Citing my illness, and her visceral hatred of Rodina, Mom herself 
began contemplating the move at the end of 1973. 

A vyzov (invitation petition) from a chimerical great-uncle in Israel 
had been already secured. The paper with its suggestive red seal sat in 
Mom’s underwear drawer as she pondered our future. Newspapers of 
the day freshly railed against the “Zionist aggressors” (the Yom Kip- 
pur War had just ended). We attended clandestine Hebrew classes and 
endless farewell open houses for departing friends, their flats stripped 
down to bare yellow-stained mattresses. People squatted atop packed 
suitcases. Cried, smoked, guzzled vodka from mismatched borrowed 
mugs, scooped salat Olivier straight from the bowl. We left these gath- 
erings loaded with practical tips— for example, thoroughly lick the stamps 
for your exit visa petition— and tantalizing snippets of news of the al- 
ready departed. Lida’s daughter was loving the kibbutz; Misha in Mich- 
igan had bought a used Pontiac, green with only two dents. At home I 
looked up Telia Veef and Sheekago on my globe as Mom weighed the 
pros and cons of Israel (honor) versus America (comfort, old friends, a 
renowned scleroderma expert). 

I needed proper medical help. Dad evidently needed us out of his 
hair. He seemed bored once again with family life. “Da, da,” he’d agree, 
almost gleeful, whenever Mom brought up zagranitsa. “Go, I might join 
you later once you are settled.” 

And yet Mother kept stalling— torn between the dead-end “here” 
and a future “there” that she couldn’t even begin to imagine. 

Navsegda — forever. Emigrating without the right of return. It would 
be a kind of dying. 

Our country’s tragic shortage of tara was what tipped Mom finally 
toward the OVIR, the State Office of Visas and Registrations. 

A luxurious late-spring day in 1974. The monumentalist capital of 
our Socialist Rodina was veiled in the yellow-green leafy crochet of its 
birch trees. But inside our regular grocery store, nuclear winter reigned. 
Besides the familiar rot, a greenish-white slime adhered to the beets; 
strange mutant growths sprouted on the potatoes. Normally oblivious 



to such things, my mother stormed off without her usual makings of 
soup, holding back tears. At the Three Piglets corner shop, an even 
grimmer landscape awaited: the counter was bare, save for bloodied 
hunks of unidentifiable flesh. 

“Udder and whalemeat!” barked the button-nosed salesgirl. Her 
scowl was like frostbite. 

With two mouths to feed. Mom swallowed hard and asked for a half 
kilo of each, trying not to look at the crimson trails left on the scale. 

Open your bag, grunted the girl, shoving the purchase toward Mom. 
Mom informed her that she’d forgotten her avoska. Humbly, abjectly, 
she begged for some wrapping paper. “A newspaper, anything— I’ll pay 
you for it.” 

Citizen! scolded the girl with her scowl. “You think everything in 
our country can be bought and sold?” 

Whereupon Mom exploded with everything she thought about the 
udder and whale and the salesgirl s scowl and our stinking bounteous 
Rodina. She took the meat anyway, bearing the lumps along home in 
her naked hands, forensic evidence of the State’s remorseless assault on 
her dignity. 

I was just back from school, practicing “February” from Tchai- 
kovsky’s The Seasons, when Mom stormed in. She summoned me to the 

Her hands were still bloody. The conversation was brief. 

She had had it with the USSR, she announced. She was finally ready 
to apply for an exit visa but only if that was my earnest desire as well. 

“If you want to stay,” she said, “we will stay!” 

Called away just like that from my Red October upright piano to 
pronounce on our entire future, I shrugged. “Okay, Mamulya,” I replied. 

Zagranitsa would be an adventure, I added cheerily. 

★ ★ ★ 

To be honest, I only feigned a chipper nonchalance to appease Mom. 

Personally I had no reason to emigrate, and no bitter grievances 
with our Rodina. Even my sickness wasn’t that much of a drag, since 


79/Os: Mayonnaise of My Homeland 

the frightened doctors excused me from going to school whenever I 
wanted. I was now ten years of age, and my past as a sad-eyed bulimic 
was behind me. I was, at long last, enjoying a happy Mature Socialist 

A couple of words about Mature Socialism. 

My grandparents had idealistically embraced the regime, whereas 
the urban intelligentsia of my parents’ Thaw generation of the sixties 
rejected it with equal fervor. We, the kids of zastoi (Stagnation), expe- 
rienced a different relation with Rodina. As the first Soviet generation 
to grow up without ruptures and traumas — no purges, no war, no ca- 
thartic de-Stalinization, with its idealizing of sincerity— we belonged to 
an age when even cats on the street recognized the State’s epic utopian 
project as farce. We, Brezhnev’s grandchildren, played klassikt (Russian 
hopscotch) on the ruins of idealism. 

Happiness? Radiant Future? 

In the cynical, consumerist seventies, these were embodied by 
the holy trinity of kvartira (apartment ) -mashina (car) -dacha (country 
cottage). An imported sheepskin coat figured in too; so did blat, that 
all-enabling network of connection so scorned by Naum and Larisa. 
A popular Stagnation-era gag sums up what historians dub the Brezh- 
nevian social contract. Six paradoxes of Mature Socialism; i) There’s 
no unemployment, but no one works; 2) no one works, but productiv- 
ity goes up; 3) productivity goes up, but stores are empty; 4) stores are 
empty, but fridges are full; 5) fridges are full, but no one is satisfied; 6) 
no one is satisfied, but everyone votes yes. 

In return for the “yes” vote (at pseudoelections), the Kremlin geron- 
tocracy kept commodity prices unchanged and guaranteed nominal 
social stability— steady employment that “pretended to pay” while com- 
rades “pretended to work.” It also turned a semiblind eye to alternative 
economic and even cultural practices — as long as these didn t blatantly 
violate official norms. As one scholar notes, by socialism’s twilight the 
only classes that took ideology at face value were professional Party ac- 
tivists and dissidents. They were an overwhelming minority. Everyone 
else eked out a daily life in the holes and crevices of the creaking ma- 
chinery of power. 



My own transformation from an alienated, shadow-eyed mess in my 
kindergarten days into a scheming, duplicitous junior Homo sovieticus oc- 
curred during Lenin’s jubilee year. In 1970 beloved Vladimir Ilyich was 
turning an immortal one hundred inside his mausoleum, and Rodina 
was celebrating with such unrelenting kitsch pomp, all the force-fed re- 
joicing produced the reverse effect on the popular psyche. 

Having just moved to the Arbat, smack in the center of Moscow, 
we were besieged by a never-ending stream of tea-guzzlers. In the airy, 
multicornered kitchen that once belonged to my grandparents, people 
came and went, eating us out of the house — and treating us to a feast of 
jubilee jokes. The “commemorative Lenin products” series sent me into 
a paroxysm of private rejoicing. Items in the series: 

Triple bed: “Lenin Is with Us” (a ubiquitous State slogan) 

Bonbon: Chocolate-dipped Lenins 

Perfume: Scent of Ilyich 

Body lotion: Lenin’s cremains 

Guidebook to Siberia: For those telling Lenin jokes! 

My glee was so extravagant because my previous relations with 
Lenin had been so anguished. As Mom fought to exorcise him from 
my young mind, I furtively adored Ilyich at home, only to gag on him 
at the kindergarten, where Lenin-mania was crammed down my throat 
along with black caviar. The situation was tormenting, paralyzing; it 
had me throwing up almost daily. Until the populist carnival of jubilee 
humor liberated me from the schizophrenia of Lenin’s conflicting pres- 
ence. Laughter magically shrank the whole business. Imagining Lenin’s 
squinty, beardy visage trapped inside a milk chocolate bonbon— instead 
of a raisin or cashew! — was somehow empowering. And how I delighted 
in seeing the local drunks slap a Lenin centennial ruble on a filthy li- 
quor store counter, muttering: “My pocket ain’t no mausoleum. You 
ain’t lying around in there for long.” 

As I grew older, the symbology of our Rodina began to resemble 
not a fixed ideological landscape but a veritable kaleidoscope of shifting 
meanings and resonances. By the time I was in third grade and seriously 


7970S: Mayonnaise of My Homeland 

playing around with the various significations of my Young Pioneer tie, 
I’d made further peace with Soviet split-consciousness. Rather than a 
debilitating scourge, it seemed like a healthy Mature Socialist mind-set. 

You didn’t embrace or reject Power, I’d realized: you engaged and 

At school I was also busy chasing after the most crucial Mature So- 
cialist commodity: social prestige. I accomplished this by forging my 
own deep relationship with the mythical zagranitsa. We lived, after all, 
in a Moscow district swarming with embassy foreigners. Shamelessly 
I stalked their children. Sheyda from Ankara, my very first target, be- 
came my best friend and I enjoyed weekly sleepovers at the Turkish em- 
bassy on Bolshaya Nikitskaya Street, the embassy row near my house. I 
got myself in, too, with Neema and Margaret, daughters of the ambas- 
sadors of Ghana and Sierra Leone, respectively. Ghana— what a world 
superpower! So I thought to myself, slipping past the dour guard and 
into a private elevator that deposited me right in the Ghanaian ambas- 
sador’s sumptuous living room. 

My life as diplomatic socialite left me flush with prestigious im- 
ported goods. Ballpoint pens, Donald Duck stickers, Smarties, 
Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit, and Turkish Mabel gum with a picture of a 
be-turbaned belle on a shimmery wrapper. Myself, I barely touched 
this stuff. Instead, in my own modest way I contributed to the mas- 
sive Brezhnevian shadow economy. I sold, bartered, traded imports for 
services and favors. For three stale M&M’s, Pavlik, the most glamorous 
boy at my school, two years my senior, slavishly carried my knapsack 
for a week. With profits from selling Juicy Fruit in a girls’ bathroom at 
school, I treated myself to meals at House of Scholars, the elite Acad- 
emy of Sciences clubhouse, where Mom sent me for dance lessons on 
Wednesdays. I skipped the silly ballet and made a beeline straight to 
the extravagantly marbled dining room. Once Mom came to pick me 
up early and the dance teacher reproachfully motioned her toward the 
restaurant. There I was, a proper black marketeer, at my regular corner 
table under a gilded mirror, enjoying a personal cocotte pan of wild 
mushroom “julienne.” 

A romantically mysterious illness, social prestige, a thriving black 



market career to say nothing of hopscotch on the ruins of an ideology. 
This is what my mother proposed to take me away from. But I loved 
her. And so for her sake I said an insincere Brezhnevian “yes” to her 
emigration plans. 

★ ★ ★ 

In May 1974. Mom resigned from her job to avoid compromising her 
colleagues and handed her emigration papers to an OVIR clerk. The 
clerk was an anti-Semitic Slav with a luridly ironic surname: Israeleva. 

Mom was not optimistic. The big problem was Naum^him and his 
fancy “intelligence worker” past. “You’ll never be allowed out!” thundered 
Dedushka, apoplectic at her announcement that she wanted to emigrate. 
He wasn’t bluffing. Applicants with far fewer “classified” relatives nev- 
ertheless joined the ranks of otkaznikt (refuseniks), those bearded social 
outcasts (and dissident heroes) who were denied exit visas and thereafter 
led a blacklisted life with no work, no money and a nonstop KGB tail. On 
the required “parents’ consent” form Mom had forged Naum’s signature; 
when asked to describe his job, she put down a vague “retired.” 

I suppose OVIR was missing some teeth on its fine-toothed comb. 
In July, Mom and I came back from the polyclinic in the drenching rain 
to find Dad holding an opened OVIR envelope. 

“September,” he blurted out. “They say you’re to leave by September!” 

For once. Dad looked shaken. When the rain stopped he took me 
to an ugly, overlit shishkebab restaurant where a band blasted even at 
lunch. He told me not to forget him, to write. His unsardonic tone 
jolted me. Embarrassed by this sudden expression of fatherly sentiment, 

I silently wrestled with the tough, sinewy meat. 

The next two months unfolded as a stagnant slog through red tape. 
How they tortured us pitiful would-be refugees! Lines to unregister 
from your “dwelling space,” lines to notarize every legal scrap of your 
former life. And the money! In a final stroke of extortion and humilia- 
tion, the State charged a huge tariff to relinquish Soviet citizenship. All 
told, emigration expenses amounted to the equivalent of two years’ sal- 
ary. Mom scraped together the cash by selling art books sent by Marina, 


J970s: Mayonnaise of My Homeland 

her school friend now in New York. This was a loan— she’d pay Marina 
back later in dollars. 

Fra Angelico, Degas, Magritte: they financed our departure. “Imag- 
ine, Anyutik!” Mom would exclaim, lugging the high-priced volumes to 
a dusty secondhand book shop. “Soon— soon we will see the originals!” 

The exit-visa process had transformed Mother, I noticed. 

Anguished tears, sorrowful regrets— she wasn’t interested. Her vi- 
sion of departure was not so much a sad, extended farewell as a curt 
removal; an amputation, surgical and painless, of her forty years as a 
citizen of our glorious Rodina. Amputation might even be too grand: 
maybe she regarded her past as a Soviet wart that would simply fall off. 
Or imagined a quick death by injection and a resurrection in another 
future and dimension, the unimaginable tarn (there) where she’d felt 
she belonged ever since Lucien of Meknes held her hand during the 
International Youth Festival. Even I, the cynical black marketeer in 
the family, couldn’t fathom how a woman so delicate, who unfailingly 
wept at the exact same passage of War and Peace, and fainted — literally 
fainted— at my dad’s infidelities could show such resolve in so tragic a 
circumstance. I don’t think I saw Mother cry once. 

This severing of the past included its physical remnants. 

The spiteful Brezhnevian Rodina allowed us three suitcases per 
person. Mom took two tiny ones for the both of us: a semisvelte black 
vinyl number and a misshapen eyesore resembling a swollen, decay- 
ing brick. Studiously she ignored the detailed “to take” lists circulating 
among Jewish traitors to Rodina. Things for personal use; things to sell 
while at the transit points of Vienna and Rome. The latter included 
handcrafted linens, Zenit cameras, matryoshka dolls, and wind-up toy 
chickens that apparently enjoyed enthusiastic demand at flea markets 
in the Eternal City. Also hammer-and-sickle souvenirs, for which sen- 
timental Italian communists forked over decent lire. 

And generally: “Everything dear to you.” 

Our mini-luggage held: one little blanket, two sets of cutlery, two 
bedding sets, two bowls with pink flowers made in Czechoslovakia, 
and by way of a “dear object,” one terra-cotta Georgian flower vase of 
massive ugliness. We owned barely any clothes, and no boots; I had 



outgrown mine, and Mother’s leaked badly. But she didn’t forget an 
empty mayonnaise jar— the tarn for my urinalysis. What if they didn’t 
have suitable glassware at American clinics? 

“Anything dear to you?” Mother asked. 

I wasn’t sure. 

There was my collection of imported chocolate wrappers that I 
groomed and smoothed out with my thumb and kept inside Giliar- 
ovsky’s Moscow and Muscovites. But why bother toting along these capital- 
ist totems when I’d be residing where many many more could be had? 
I adored Dedushka Naum’s clanky medals, but he’d never part with 
them, and neither would customs allow them through. 

To my surprise, I thought of my reviled school uniform. Brown, 
thigh-length, woolen and scratchy, worn under a black pinafore. The 
dress was dry-cleaned once a year, if at all. But every week, in a domes- 
tic ritual replayed across each of our eleven time zones, Soviet moms 
unstitched the white lace collar and cuffs and sewed on fresh ones. My 
mother always did this on Monday nights, simultaneously stitching 
and chattering away on her black telefon. We’d sit in my parents’ room 
around the low three-legged Finnish table. Dad was usually gluing to- 
gether the broken tape on his reel-to-reel magnitofon. I watched Vremya, 
the TV evening news. “Turn it down,” Mother would hiss as Donbas 
metallurgical workers dutifully overfulfilled Five-Year Plans, and rye 
sprouted lavishly in the Ukraine, and bushy-browed Dear Leonid Ilyich 
Brezhnev locked in eternal embrace with bushy-cheeked Fidel. 

The TV weather report, set to a bittersweet pop tune, would last an 
eternity. In Uzbekistan, a sunny twenty degrees centigrade. In Kam- 
chatka, a snowstorm. Leningrad region, intermittent precipitation. Vast 
was our Socialist Rodina! 

How could I ever confess to my parents that I felt secret pangs of 
pride at this vastness? That it stung me now, the thought of going to bed 
for the rest of my life not knowing if it was going to rain in the Urals? 

I went into my room and unfolded my school uniform. It was too 
small. A new school year had just started but I, newly minted Zionist 
enemy, wasn’t allowed to say goodbye to my friends. I pressed the dress 


J970S: Mayonnaise of My Homeland 

to my face, inhaling its institutional reek. I didn’t despise the smell as 
Mom did. From one pocket 1 fished out a fragment of Juicy Fruit in 
silvery foil. From another, my crumpled scarlet Young Pioneer tie. 

Propelled by a sudden nostalgic patriotism I turned toward the 
door, ready to announce to Mom that I wanted to take the tie but 
then stopped. Because I knew what she’d say. 

Ny et, she’d say plainly. 

Mom also said nyet to a farewell open house. And she wouldn’t allow 
relatives at the airport — only Sergei. The plan was to bid goodbye to 
close family at my grandparents’ house two nights before leaving and 
spend our last evening with Dad. 

At our farewell dinner in Davydkovo, the Frumkin clan was in fine 
form. Babushka Liza had cooked her usual gloppy food for two days; 
Uncle Sashka got drunk, Aunt Yulia was late, and Dedushka Naum, 
well, he bellowed and he raged — on and on. 

“My own daughter— a traitor of Rodina!” 

Then, shifting from accusation, he wagged an ominous finger: 
“Nostalghia— it’s the MOST HORRIFYING emotion known to mankind!” 

Naum had apparently confessed Mom’s treason to his benefactor, 
the venerated Baltic commander Admiral Tributs. The World War II 
great man was reassuring: “When she’s over there, starving and cold, beg- 
ging us for forgiveness, we will help her to return!’ 

Dedushka relayed this with glee. “You’ll come crawlingback,” he shouted, 
“on your knees, across our Soviet border! You’ll kiss our beloved black Soviet earth!" 

Cousin Masha and I kicked each other under the table: everyone 
knew that heavily armed men and snarling German shepherds patrolled 
the Soviet border. No, there was no crossing back. 

Marring our intimate family tableau was a houseguest, Inna, a 
distant relative from Chernovtsy. Sixteen and pimply, Inna had two 
enormous black braids and a lofty desire to work for the KGB when 
she graduated from high school. As Dedushka calmed down and tears 
coursed along Babushka Liza’s doughy cheeks, the KGB wannabe, who 



despite her ambitions was on the slow side, suddenly gasped in compre- 
hension. She leapt to her feet and proclaimed that she could not share 
the table with a traitor! Then she barged out the door, braids swing- 
ing. On our way down we saw her on the landing, being groped by a 
non-sober neighbor. 

But the true heartache was Baballa. 

Mom concealed our departure from her until the very last month, 
and when Babushka Alla finally heard, she went pale as a ghost. 

All my life I ve lost those I love,” she told Mom very quietly, lips 
trembling. “My husband in the war, my grandma in the gulags. When 
Anyuta was born I got my joy back. She’s the only thing I cherish in life. 
How can you take her away?” 

To save her life,” Mom replied gravely. 

To avoid more heartbreak, Mother pleaded with Baballa not to see 
us off on our departure morning. Baballa was there all the same. She sat 
on a bench outside our apartment house, wearing her usual blue pencil 
skirt, striped blouse, and a hastily applied smear of red lipstick. She was 
fifty-seven, bleached blonde, six feet tall, and gorgeous. Hugging her, I 
caught her familiar whiff of Red Poppy face powder and Belomor ciga- 
rettes. Shyly she pressed a bottle of vodka and a tin of black caviar into 
Mom’s hands. 

As our taxi drove off I saw her sink onto the bench. That was my 
last image of her. 

At customs we were prodded and questioned, our puny luggage 
turned inside out. They confiscated Mom’s letters from Lucien, along 
with a green spray can of Jazmin, a classy imported deodorant. 

“That’s your luggage?” said the feral blond passport official, eyeing 
our two dwarf suitcases. “ Veyzmir he taunted in a mock Yiddish accent. 

I walked backwards for a few steps, waving to Dad, who stood 
on the other side of the chrome barrier. He was making a “write me” 
sign with his hands. On the stairs leading up to the departure gate I 
caught another glimpse of him through the glass. He seemed small and 
hunched, suddenly, desperately gesticulating to Mom. I tugged at her 
sleeve but she just kept marching up— a five-foot, hundred-pound elf 
looking like a miniature sergeant in her hand-sewn khaki skirt suit. I 


1970S: Mayonnaise of My Homeland 

thought of Orpheus, how he glanced back and screwed everything up, 
and I stopped looking at Dad. 

On the plane I was on my ninth plastic tumbler of free Pepsi when 
they made the announcement. “We have just left Soviet territory.” I 
wanted to sit there with Mom and ponder the moment, but my bladder 
was bursting. 

★ ★ ★ 

Six months later. The elfin woman trudges along the edge of a high- 
way, ahead of her girl, who’s just turned eleven and is now the taller 
of the pair. Fordi, Pon-ti-aki, Chev-ro-leti. Woman and girl have been 
learning the names of the different cars that go roaring past, only cata- 
strophic inches away. Apparently there are no sidewalks in Northeast 
Philadelphia. At least not on the road that leads from the Pathmark as 
vast as Red Square to their drab one-bedroom on Bustleton Avenue, its 
ceiling even lower than a khrushcheba’s, its wall-to-wall carpet the murky, 
speckled gray of crushed hope. 

It’s an obscure, foggy night — humid although it’s almost Decem- 
ber. The woman has on a flimsy hand-me-down parka, courtesy of 
her school friend Irina, who helped sponsor her American visa. The 
girl wears a little-old-lady-style belted coat with sleeves way too short 
and a bedraggled synthetic fur trim. Both woman and girl are panting, 
hugging the guardrail as they laboriously trudge. Their arms clutch a 
paper grocery bag each. Occasionally they put the heavy bags down, 
slump on the guardrail, and shake their tired arms. Lights glare poi- 
sonously through the fog. It starts drizzling. Then raining. The girl 
struggles with her coat to shield her grocery bag, but it breaks anyway. 
Squishy loaves of white bread and trays of thirty-nine-cent chicken 
parts tumble onto the road’s edge. Cars slow down, honk — offering 
rides? The girl— me — is silently crying. For so many reasons, really. But 
my mother — the woman— stays cheerful, unperturbed, scrambling to 
snatch a box of blueberry Pop-Tarts from the oncoming traffic and stuff 
it into her bag, which is still holding up, miraculously. Clasping the gro- 
cery bag with one arm for a moment, she shoots an awkward wave back 



at the honking cars, shaking her head “no” to a ride. They can’t see her 
smile in the dark. 

“Come, isn’t this an adventure, Anyutik?” she exclaims, trying to 
cheer me up. “Aren’t Americans nice?” 

At this particular sodden moment, of the multitude of things I so 
sorely miss about Moscow, I miss our avoska bag more than anything 

★ ★ ★ 

And the precious trusted mayonnaise jar— the one we bore to Vienna, 
then Rome, then Philadelphia? I’ve been missing it, too. Because that 
Mature Socialist totem has vanished from our lives forever, after Mom, 
almost straight off the plane, rushed me to see a world-renowned sclero- 
derma expert. 

The fancy American hospital where he worked turned out to be 
barren of diversions and character: no instructive syphilis posters, no 
patients carrying matchboxes with stool samples and Provansal ves- 
sels with urine— along with chocolates and Polish pantyhose— to the 
bribe-expecting receptionist. No nurses screaming “Trakhatsa nado men - 
she!” (You should screw less!) at gonorrhea sufferers. 

The scleroderma expert was himself an immigrant from far-away 
Argentina. When Mom detailed our desperate Soviet medical odyssey 
to him, he shocked her. By laughing. He even summoned his colleagues. 
The nurse, the new resident, the head of Dermatology— everyone shook 
with laughter, asking my bewildered mom to repeat again and again 
how Soviet doctors treated my scleroderma with penicillin and moomiyo 
goo and healing mud from gaudy Odessa. 

Baring his big horsey teeth, the guffawing doc explained at last that 
childhood scleroderma was an entirely harmless version of this nor- 
mally fatal disease. It required no treatment at all. 

"Welcome to the free world!” the doctor congratulated my now- 
laughing mother and me as he escorted us to the foyer. When we stepped 
back out onto the humid Philadelphia sidewalk. Mom was still laughing. 


7970s: Mayonnaise of My Homeland 

Then she hugged me and sobbed and sobbed. The mayonnaise jar, our 
indispensable socialist artifact, went into an outsize American trash 
can. Ahead of us was an era of blithely disposable objects. 

And Pathmark. 

★ ★ ★ 

My First Supermarket Experience was the anchoring narrative of the 
great Soviet epic of immigration to America. Some escapees from our 
socialist defitsit society actually swooned to the floor (usually in the aisle 
with toilet paper). Certain men knelt and wept at the sight of forty-two 
varieties of salami, while their wives — smelling the strawberries and 
discovering they lacked any fragrance— cried for opposite reasons. 
Other emigrants, possessed by the ur-Soviet hoarding instinct, franti- 
cally loaded up their shopping carts. Still others ran out empty-handed, 
choked and paralyzed by the multiplicity of choices. 

The Jewish Family Services office where we collected our meager 
refugee stipend resounded with food stories. The stories constituted an 
archive of socialists’ misadventures with imperialist abundance. Monya 
and Raya complained about the flavor of American butter — after 
smearing floor wax on bread. The Goldbergs loved the delicious lunch 
meat cans with cute pictures of kitties, not suspecting the kitties were 
the intended consumers. Vovchik, the Odessa lothario, slept with his 
first American shiksa and stormed out indignant when she offered him 
Triscuits. Desiccated cardboard squares! Why not a steaming bowl of 

Mom, who was smarter than Orpheus and never once looked back 
after heading up the ramp at Sheremetyevo Airport, roamed Pathmark ’s 
acres with childlike glee. “She-ree-ohs . . . Ri-seh-rohonee . . . Vel. Vee. 
Tah . . She murmured these alien names as if they’d been concocted 
by Proust, lovingly prodding and handling all the foodstuffs in their 
bright packaging, their promiscuous, throwaway tara. 

Meanwhile, I steered the supermarket cart behind her like a zombie. 
I hated the Pathmark of Northeast Philadelphia. It was the graveyard 



of my own zagranitsa dream, possessed of a fittingly funerary chill and an 
otherworldly fluorescence. Shuffling the aisles, 1 felt entombed in the 
abundance of food, now drained of its social power and magic. Who 
really wanted the eleven-cent bag of bananas if you couldn’t parade it 
down Kalinin Prospect inside your transparent avoska after standing in 
a four-hour line, basking in envious stares? What happened when you 
replaced the heroic Soviet verb dostat’ (to obtain with difficulty) with 
the banal kupit’ (to buy), a term barely used back in the USSR? Shop- 
ping at Pathmark was acquisitioning robbed of thrills, drama, ritual. 
Where did blat come into play, with its savvy maneuvering of social ties, 
its camaraderie? Where was envy and social prestige? The reassuring 
communal ochered’ smell of hangovers and armpits? Nobody and noth- 
ing smelled inside Pathmark. 

A few weeks into our Philadelphia life, I began to suspect that all 
those cheery disposable boxes and plastic containers piled on Path- 
mark’s shelves were a decoy to conceal the dark truth. That American 
food — I hesitate to say it — wasn’t exactly delicious. Not the Pop-Tarts 
that Mom served cold and semi-raw because nobody told her about 
the toasting part. Not American sosiski, hot dogs sour from nitrates. 
Definitely not the yellow-skinned thirty-nine-cent chicken parts ban- 
daged in plastic. These made me pine for the bluish, Pravda - swaddled 
chicks Baballa brought back from her elite canteen at Gosstroy. Those 
had graphic claws, a poignant comb, sad dead eyes, and stray feathers 
Grandma burned off with her clunky cigarette lighter, filling the house 
with a smell like burnt hair. We enjoyed the chicks once a month, as a 
defitsit treat. 

When our Jewish Family Services stipend ended. Mom worked clean- 
ing Philadelphia houses, a job she pronounced “fascinating!” Then she 
landed work as a receptionist at a hospital, which required her to ride 
three separate buses. Her shift began at noon and brought her home past 
ten, when I was already in bed. Tactfully she spared me the details of 
standing in all weather at unshielded bus stops. I , in turn, never told her 
how I felt coming back to an empty, ugly apartment from the dreaded 


7 970s: Mayonnaise of My Homeland 

Louis H. Farrell Elementary School, with only our hand-me-down 
grainy black-and-white TV for company. When Dinah Shore came on, 
I wanted to howl. She was the human equivalent of the peanut butter 
and jelly sandwich that came with my free refugee school lunch. All 
squishy, pseudofolksy whiteness, with an unnatural, cloying coupling of 
sugar and salt. 

I spent most of my first afterschool hours slumped on our shared 
mattress, nose in books from the two boxes of them Mom had had 
slow-mailed from Moscow. The bottle-green Chekhov, the gray 
Dostoyevsky — breaking off from their color-coordinated collected 
works, I tried to practice Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons on the battered sec- 
ondhand piano Mom had bought for me with a handout from Clara, 
her American aunt. But the notes under my fingers produced only tears, 
the wrenching reminder of our old Arbat life. And so I paced in dazed 
agitation, from the bedroom, past the TV to the piano, to the kitchen- 
ette and back. And yet not even in my worst homesick moments could 
I admit to missing Rodina with any sincerity. Sincerity, it seemed, had 
been bled out of us by the cynical Brezhnevian seventies. Which added 
a layer of denial to homesickness. 

Rodina-Urodina. A Motherland that rhymed with “ugly hag.” A 
scarlet-blazed myth that flipped into an ironic gag. Historically the 
word — denoting one’s birthplace, from the root rod (origin/kin) — had 
been the intimate, maternal counterpart to otchizna (fatherland), that 
resoundingly heroic, martially tinted noun. The Bolsheviks banned 
Rodina, suspicious of its folkloric entwining with nationalism. Under 
Stalin it resurfaced in 1934, aligned now with official Soviet patriotism. 
In World War II it was mobilized full force — feminized further — as 
Rodina-Mat\ literally “motherland-mother,” to be defended to the last 
by its sons and daughters. Grassroots patriotism swept the nation. But 
by my childhood, like all “meaningful” words, Rodina had acquired a 
cartoonish bathos. Even if treason to the motherland was a criminal 

Come to think of it, there wasn’t a single word for the country we’d 
never see again that I could use with any authentic nostalgia. Soviet 
Union? Pining for anything with Soviet in it was politically incorrect 



since the word evoked the lumbering carcass of the official regime. 
Rossiya (Russia)? That too was tainted with the saccharine kitsch of 
state-certified nationalism: all those swaying birch trees and troika 
sleds. And so I resorted to sovok or sovdep — bitterly sarcastic slang for the 
land of the Homo sovieticus. 

Such linguistic calibrations didn’t concern Mother much. After all, 
she’d spent most of her adult Soviet life as a spiritual emigre, yearning 
for the imaginary Elsewhere she envisioned as her own true Rodina. 
Occasionally she’d admit to missing the tart-green antonovka apples, a 
fairly neutral Nabokovian gesture. And once, only once, when she heard 
a song about Arbat, our intimate old Moscow neighborhood, she burst 
into tears. 

Myself, I had neither accepted nor rejected our socialist state. In- 
stead I constantly played the angles, with its values and countervalues, 
its resonances. From this all-encompassing game I’d created my child- 
hood identity. So now, along with the unmentionable Rodina I was 
mourning the loss of a self. 

My name, for example. 

Anna, Anya, An’ka, Anechka, Anyuta, Nyura, Niusha. What a 
menu of nuanced social meanings and linguistic attitudes available 
within my own single name. And now? I wasn’t even Anna (my of- 
ficial passport name). I was a Philly-accented Ee-ya-nna — the sonorous, 
open Russian “A” squished and rubberized like the Wonder Bread of 
our exile. 

Bread. I missed Moscow bread. 

Standing at the fridge, dragging a slice of Oscar Mayer bologna onto 
a slice of spongy whiteness. I’d mentally inhale the voluptuous sour- 
dough tang of our neighborhood bakery by the tree-lined Tverskoy 
Boulevard. There, manipulating in my small grip a giant two-pronged 
fork attached by a grimy string to the wall. I’d poke and press, testing for 
freshness, the dark burnished loaves arranged on their tilted worn-wood 
shelves under a slogan: BREAD IS OUR SOVIET WEALTH— DON’T BUY 


1970 S: Mayonnaise of My Homeland 

We had arrived in Philadelphia on November 14, 1974. A few weeks 
later, we noticed people appearing downtown in drab uniforms, singing 
and clanging bells beside red buckets under puzzling signs for a “Salva- 
tion Army.” To this day, “Jingle Bells” and “Joy to the World” pierce me 
as the soundtracks of emigre dislocation. 

I had stopped believing in Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost) when 
I was six and we still lived in Davydkovo. My neighbor Kiril and I 
stayed up past midnight waiting for the promised arrival of our Soviet 
New Year’s version of Santa in his long flowing robe. I had on a tiara of 
snowflakes and a satiny costume gown Mom fashioned for the occasion 
from an old dress of hers. The doorbell rang at last. Ded Moroz himself 
swayed on our threshold, majestic and glassy-eyed. Then all six feet of 
him collapsed face-first into our khrushcheba’s tiny foyer. The next morn- 
ing he was still there, snoring, still in his robe but with his beard now 
detached and crumpled under one cheek. A dead-drunk Ded Moroz 
wasn’t the worst. The really awful ones screwed up the gifts parents had 
given them in advance — delivering rubber-smelling inflatable beach 
balls, for instance, to the family who’d bought expensive East German 
toy sets. 

But I loved Soviet novygod (New Year’s) anyway. The harsh scent of 
pine on our balcony where our tree awaited decoration. My small mom 
teetering on a tall wobbly stool to reach the high closet for the box of 
our New Year’s ornaments, swaddled in coarse pharmacy cotton. By 
the last week of December, the State dumped long-hoarded delicacies 
onto store counters. From Praga Dad carried home the white box of its 
famous chocolate layer cake; Mom’s avoska bulged with sharply fragrant 
thin-skinned clementines from Abkhazia. And eagerly we awaited Ba- 
balla’s holiday zakaz, the elite take-home package of defitsit goods from 
Gosstroy. You never knew what each year would bring. I prayed for the 
buttery balik (smoked sturgeon) instead of the prestigious but disgusting 
canned cod liver. 

Philadelphia had no snow our first December. Worse, fellow emi- 
gres gravely warned one another against putting up Christmas trees, 



since Jewish-American sponsors liked to drop in on their charges to 
deliver mezuzahs or bags of used clothes. Our generous sponsors went 
ballistic at the sight of an evergreen, sometimes even reporting the blas- 
phemous refugees to Jewish Family Services. Many ex-Soviet citizens 
didn’t realize that their Jewishness was now a religion, not simply the 
“ethnicity” declared in the fifth entry of their surrendered red pass- 
ports. The sponsors in turn had no clue that Christmas was banned in 
the USSR— that the trees, gifts, Ded Moroz, and general cheer were the 
secular socialist hooray to the new year. 

Obediently Mom lit the alien Hanukkah candles on the menorah 
we’d been given. On the plywood shelf around it she heaped candies 
gooey with vile peanut butter, and charcoal-black cookies filled with 
something white and synthetic. A charcoal-black cookie! Would any- 
one eat such a thing? The candies remained unsucked, the cookies un- 
wrapped. My eyes grew duller and more vacant each day— and Mom 
relented and bought a yolka, a holiday tree, from the five-and-dime 
store. Barely twelve inches tall, made of rough plastic, and decorated 
with out-of-scale red and green balls that cost nineteen cents a package, 
it didn’t make me any happier. 

For our first New Year’s in America, instead of champagne Mom 
served the sticky-sweet Manischewitz wine our sponsors had urged 
on us. And she gave our celebratory salat Olivier a thorough Pathmark 
makeover! Mercifully, Mom didn’t tamper with the potatoes and eggs. 
But she replaced the proper fresh-boiled diced carrots with canned 
ones, swapped our canned peas for the bright-green frozen variety, de- 
void of the requisite mushiness. For protein, some evil force propelled 
her toward the gristly, vinegary Hormel’s pickled pig’s feet. Worst of all 
was the mayo. Instead of our loose, tangy-sharp vanished Provansal, it 
was Hellmann’s now smothering Mom’s Olivier in a cloyingly fluffy, 
infuriatingly sweet blanket. 

At eleven p.m. Mom scooped the Pathmark Olivier into the two 
Czech bowls with pink flowers— the scant remnants of our past lives 
we’d carried inside our two tiny suitcases. 

The bowls had been Baballa’s present to us for our last Moscow 
New Year’s. That night, right before suppertime, she'd stormed into 


1970S: Mayonnaise of My Homeland 

our Arbat apartment, furiously stomping snow off her green wool coat, 
swearing in a voice raspy from cigarettes and cold. “Your present,” she 
snorted bitterly, handing Mom a misshapen, rattling parcel inside an 
avoska. It had been a very desirable Czech dinner set. Except that after 
standing in line for it for most of the day, Baballa had slipped on some 
ice on her way over. We sat on the floor under our festive Soviet tree, 
picking through a wreck of broken socialist china. Only two bowls had 
survived intact. At the dinner table Baballa drowned her regrets in 
vodka, topping up my glass with champagne when Mom wasn’t look- 
ing. After dessert and the turning-of-the-year tumult, she led us all out 
for a walk to Red Square. 

It had just stopped snowing outside and the temperatures were 
plunging to minus twenty. And I was drunk. For the first time in my 
life. On Red Square! Thanks to the cold, the alcohol coursed through 
my bloodstream slowly, caressingly, warming my limbs as we tramped 
along. Beneath the floodlit tropical marzipan domes of St. Basil’s Ca- 
thedral, we uncorked another bottle of Sovetskoye bubbly. It was 1974, 
the year of our emigration. My parents kissed on the lips while Grandma 
sang patriotic songs in disharmony with the other drunks on the square. 
Squealing with pleasure like a collective farm piglet, I rolled around in 
the fresh powdery snowdrifts, sending up silvery showers twinkling and 
dancing against the floodlights. 

In Philly, as the clock struck 1975, Mom and I picked at our Path- 
mark salat Olivier and sipped the bubbleless Manischewitz from 
hand-me-down mugs. Far away, eight hours earlier, in another land, 
Dear Feonid Ilyich Brezhnev had once again adjusted his reading 
glasses, rattled his medals, thunderously cleared his throat, and then 
shuffled his papers in a desperate scramble to locate the first line of his 
New Year’s address to the Rodina. 

“Dear Compatriots!” The phrase no longer included us. 




Perestroika family reunion, 1989 



1980S: MOSCOW 

At the start of the eighties, less than a decade into our American exile, 
I went to a gadalka, a fortune-teller. 

Trudging up to her fifth-floor lair in New York’s Little Italy, I 
murmured curses at every landing. This gadalka, Terri by name, charged 
a whopping ninety bucks for her readings— and I didn’t even trust 
fortune-tellers. But an attack of professional angst had driven me there. 

“I hear music.” 

Th e gadalka Terri announced this on her threshold in a thick Italian 
New Yorkese. 

I stared at her, panting and amazed. My angst involved my piano 
studies at Juilliard. How’d she know I was a musician? 

But from here the reading went nowhere. Terri, in her thirties, 
sipped tea from a chipped I Heart NT mug, squinted and strained, con- 
jured trivialities. 

“Your cousin doesn’t love her husband . . . In your mama’s life there’s 
a person named Bennett ...” I nodded along. I felt the ninety bucks 
evaporating in my pocket. 

Then came her big finale. “Soon,” exclaimed Terri, waving her tea 
mug, “soon you’ll see your papa and the rest of your family!” 

I handed over the cash and tramped back downstairs fuming, my 
angst unaddressed, my real question — Will I become a famous pianist ? — 
unanswered. Outside I went and consoled myself with a jumbo cannoli. 



My mother had by then followed me from Philadelphia to New 
York, where we shared a one-bedroom on a drab street in the mostly 
Colombian enclave of Jackson Heights, Queens. But still. After the 
doldrums of Philadelphia, immigrant multiculti New York felt like 
home. I loved how our hallway smelled of garlicky pernil and stewed 
beans. Salsa and cumbia blasted from every apartment, while our own 
was filled with the lofty, competing sounds of Beethoven and Brahms. 
Despite my career angst, generally, life was okay. Mom taught ESL at a 
nearby elementary school, and what’s more, she’d rekindled her Mos- 
cow lifestyle of concerts, theaters, and endless ticket lines. She was even 
happier seeing me worship at the altar of High Culture. Ever since I 
at thirteen had begun taking the train up from Philly to attend Jul- 
liard’s pre-college program — and then the college proper in 1980 — I’d 
lived and breathed piano. The keyboard completely took over my life, 
sustained me through years of immigrant dislocation, repaired my frac- 
tured identity. 

“So? What did the gadalka say about your piano?” Mom wanted to 
know. I shrugged. I asked if she knew anybody named “Bennett.” Mom 
nearly fell out of her chair. 

“Mrs. Bennett? She’s our Board of Education comptroller — I just 
saw her today!” 

Amid the Bennett hue and cry I almost forgot Terri’s last bit about 
our family reuniting. Mom slackened to a wistful smile when I remem- 
bered. It was her turn to shrug. Oh well . . . The Soviet State was eter- 
nal, intractable. Reunions just weren’t in the cards. 

And then they all began dropping dead. 

★ ★ ★ 

In the Russian vernacular the early eighties are known as the “pompous 
funeral era.” Or “the three-coffin Five-Year Plan.” 

“Got your funeral pass?” went a Kremlin guard joke. 

“Nah,” replies the attendee. “Got a season ticket.” 

Most of the doddering Politburo were pushing seventy. The death 
of Alexei Kosygin, the sometime reformer, kicked off the decade. Dear 



l<? 80 s: Moscow Through the Shot Glass 

Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev followed on November IO, 1982, three days 
after he’d been seen looking his usual self— a fossilized turtle — at the 
sixty-fifth anniversary of the revolution parade. 

On Leonid Ilyich’s death day, Soviet TV turned true to form — 
mysteriously weird. A droopy Tchaikovsky symphony instead of a much- 
anticipated hockey match? A didactic Lenin flick in place of the Militia 
Day pop concert? 

The following morning, “with great sorrow,” the Kremlin an- 
nounced the passing of the general secretary of the Soviet Communist 
Party Central Committee and chairman of the Presidium of the USSR 
Supreme Soviet. 

Nobody wailed. 

Dear Leonid Ilyich, seventy-five, was neither feared nor loved. In 
the last of his almost twenty years ruling the 270-million-person so- 
cialist empire, he was a decrepit pill-popper who washed his sedatives 
down with zubrovka, a vodka flavored with buffalo grass. He’d survived 
strokes, a clinical death, and a jaw cancer that made mush out of his 
five-hour-long speeches. He still gave them — often. His rezhim clanked 
along, just as sclerotic as he, resuscitated somewhat by hard currency 
from soaring oil and gas prices. 

This domino player had a nice life for himself. His cartoonish ex- 
travagance held a perfect mirror to the kitsch materialist epoch he led. 
Brezhnev adored foreign cars and bespoke jackets of capitalist denim. 
Right before dying he indulged in his favorite sport, killing boar at the 
Zavidovo hunting estate, where choice prey were brought in from all 
over the USSR and fattened on fish and oranges. The Politburo hunt- 
ing party fattened itself on caviar straight out of sturgeons, steaming 
crayfish soup, and spit-roasted boar au plein air. It was an age of crony 
banquets and hyperelite food allocations, and Dear Leonid Ilyich was 
the empire’s first epicure, with a habit of sending culinary souvenirs — a 
pheasant, a rabbit, a bloody hunk of bear — to favored friends. By 
many accounts he was a harmless, fun-loving man. Too bad about the 
Prague Spring, the torture of dissidents in psychiatric wards, the war in 

Above all Brezhnev loved baubles — which presented a peculiar 



funeral problem. Protocol required each medal to be borne behind the 
casket on its own velvet cushion. But Dear Leonid Ilyich had amassed 
more then two hundred awards, including a Lenin Prize for Literature 
for a fabricated ghostwritten autobiography. Even with several medals 
per cushion, the award-bearing cortege consisted of forty-four men. 

Mom and I during all this sat glued to our TV in New York. But 
any wild flicker of hope from the gadalka Terri’s prediction died when 
they announced the successor. 

Yuri Andropov, the ex-KGB chief, a hunter of dissidents, was defi- 
nitely not a nice man. 

But though his heart was hard, Andropov’s kidneys barely func- 
tioned. Thirteen months later men in shiny mink hats once again fol- 
lowed a coffin out of the mint-green and white Hall of Columns to the 
tune of Chopin’s funeral march. 

Andropov’s successor’s health was summed up by another joke: 
“Without regaining consciousness. Comrade Konstantin Chernenko 
assumed the post of general secretary.” He lasted just over three hun- 
dred days. 

“Dear Comrades,” went a mock news announcement, “don’t laugh, 
but once again with great sorrow we inform you . . .” 

In March 1985 a barely known agricultural secretary who had been 
Andropov’s protege became the Soviet Union’s newest leader. Mikhail 
Sergeevich Gorbachev was only fifty-four, vigorous, with functioning 
organs, a law degree from Moscow State University, a thick southern 
Russian accent, a pushy wife, and an emphatic manner that instantly 
seduced the Western media. Initially Russians didn’t joke too much 
about the South America-shaped blotch on his bald scalp. The venom 
came later. Gorbachev was the sixth — and last — general secretary of the 
country known as the USSR. 

★ ★ ★ 

It’s become fashionable in Russia these days to glance backward 
through a mist of rosy nostalgia, particularly at the Mature Socialism 
of Brezhnev. 


79<SOs: Moscow Through the Shot Glass 

“We stole to our heart’s content . . 

“Oh, but still we were so honest, so innocent . . .” 

“Families were closer . . . the ice cream more wholesome,” 

From the Gucci-ed and Prada-ed to the miserably pensioned, Rus- 
sians wax fondly today about lines; recall dejitsit jokes; praise the flavor of 
the Stagnation Era kolbasa. I’m no different here in Queens. Is it not a 
special privilege, really, to possess such a rich, weird past? To have worn 
the Young Pioneer tie in that scarlet Atlantis known as the USSR? To 
savor such a bittersweet lode of socialist madeleines? 

Then, over a couple of days in 2011, the violence of the historical 
reality bears down on me— really, for the first time in my adult life. 

I’m sick and keeping to bed. Instead of the new Boris Akunin 
thriller, I have at my bedside an enormous squishyblue plastic bag Mom 
has lugged over from her apartment. The blue bag holds letters — two 
decades of correspondence from Russia from the seventies and eight- 
ies. Mom has kept it all, it turns out, crammed helter-skelter into fold- 
ers, manila envelopes, shoeboxes. Despite the thirty-odd years that 
have passed, the USSR-issue graph paper and square envelopes with 
hammer-and-sickle airmail logos and sixteen-kopek stamps saying Mir 
(Peace) are barely frayed or yellowed. There are birthday cards with 
garish Soviet roses, and New Year’s greetings featuring the snowy 
Kremlin we were certain we’d never see again. 

Sipping lemon tea, I reach in. 

Razluka. The faintly folkloric Russian word for “separation” en- 
gulfs me. 

This is the third new year we greet without you, my aunt Yulia’s anarchic 
hand protests. How long can this all last? 

In the slanted scrawl and sweetly screwy old person’s grammar of 
my grandma Liza: litany upon litany of small daily laments to cover the 
existential pain of losing her daughter to exile. 

Navsegda — forever. What was our emigration but death with the con- 
cession of correspondence? 

But from Granddad Naum not one line in the crowded blue bag. 
Yulia recently told me that after Mom departed, he morally and mentally 
shriveled, his face a stony mask of Soviet-intelligence-worker denial. A 



longtime pal denounced him to the authorities, so that Naum, having 
escaped war bullets and Stalin’s gulags, faced arrest for his daughter’s 
“treason to Rodina.” He was saved by Admiral Tributs, the World War 
II hero. Mother found this out much later and wept. 

My beloved little swallow who few away from me .. . 

The words are Grandmother Alla’s, a few days after we’d left her on 
a bench by our Moscow apartment. The biggest cache of letters is hers. 
Her round, emphatic script brings back her hoarse, tobacco-y laugh; as 
I read I can almost see her, there by her dim bedroom mirror, forcing 
metal hairpins into her bleached blonde bun. 

Raw despair brims in her letters. A woman in her fifties who, after 
neglecting her son, poured all her latent maternal love onto a child who 
“flew away.” 

My last hope has been crushed, she writes — after months of fresh plead- 
ing with the OVIRvisa office have ended yet again with the denial of a 
visit permit. I have nothing to live for . . . 

In November 1977, not long after Grandma Alla’s sixtieth birthday, 
there’s a four-page letter from my dad. 

I can barely lift a pen to write about what has come to pass, he begins. 

Alla had been staying over with him when she felt a terrible burn- 
ing in her chest. She moaned, threw up. The ambulance took forty minutes 
to arrive. A haughty, very young doctor examined her. She was histrionic and the doc 
decided she was a hysteric— informed me so directly. He injected her with a tran- 
quilizer and left. 

The next evening Sergei found his mother facedown on the floor. 
This time the ambulance came fairly rapidly. But it was all over. He sat the rest of 
the night stroking his mother’s hair. Her face was calm and beautiful. 

The autopsy showed an embolism: a piece of arterial plaque had 
torn off and gradually blocked the blood flow over twenty-four hours. 
In any other country Grandma Alla could have been saved. 

Babushka loved you with total abandon, Anyuta, I read, blinking away the 
stabbing tears. She lived for your letters, leaping twice a day to the mailbox. She 
died in Brezhnev’s Moscow on a Friday. On Sunday Dad found my last 
letter to her, from 4,700 untraversable miles away in Philadelphia. 


1 980s: Moscow Through the Shot Glass 

There are other letters from Sergei, but not many. Barely two dozen in 
the thirteen years we were apart. Another memorable one dates from 
May 1975. My first Philadelphia spring was in full, saturated azalea 
bloom. When Mom came home from work, her eyes were red, and it 
wasn’t from hay fever. She’d opened Dad’s letter at lunch. 

Lariska, dear, 

For the longest time I couldn’t bring myself to write to you about “every- 
thing” . . . What had happened to me is, I suppose, logical— and you your- 
self predicted it all back here in Moscow. I’ve realized soon enough that living 
alone is beyond me. The loneliness, the desire to be useful to someone (someone 
who, alas, is close by). In short, I’ve asked a certain Masha to live with me. 

After a bit more Masha explaining, he announces: God willing, in Oc- 
tober we will have a child, and these circumstances force me to apply for a divorce. 

But apparently divorcing an emigre is extremely complicated. So 
would Larisa help by sending by registered mail, asap, a letter to the 
Soviet international court stating she has no objections? 

My mother did object. She objected passionately. She’d been secretly 
hoping all along that Sergei would eventually join us. But being my proud, 
overly noble mom, she mailed the registered letter the following day. 

Folded in Dad’s letter I find now a response that was never sent. It’s 
from a betrayed eleven-year-old — me: 

Sergei. This is the last time you will hear from me. OK, you got married, but only 
a scumbag could write such a mean cynical letter to Mother. Then a coda in my 
still-shaky English. OK, gud-buye forever. PS. I dont’ have father any more. PPS. 
I hope your baby will be stupid and ugly. 

A year after Dad’s treachery, a trickle of contact eked back between 
me and him — if contact applies to a very occasional letter and an annual 
birthday telephone call. Those static-tormented transatlantic conver- 
sations ruined the day for me. Dad sounded not entirely sober, both 
cocky and timid, tossing off thorny little insults. “I got the tape with 



you playing Brahms. Hmm, you have a long way to go.” He fancied him- 
self a classical music critic. 

By the time I was finishing high school, Grandma Liza wrote to say 
that Sergei had left his second family— for a much younger woman. And 
that Grandma had gotten a call from Masha, the scorned second wife, 
warning that his secret plan was “to reunite with hisjirsf family.” 

At this news, Mom just gave a snide giggle. She had by then moved 
on with her life. 

And the Rodina we’d left behind forever? 

It appeared in dreams. 

I dreamed all the time I was in the Arbat by our gray building 
there at the corner of Merzlyakovksy and Skatertny Lanes. A low, omi- 
nous sky loomed. I gazed up yearningly at our corner window, seeing 
the black space where I’d once broken the glass. Somebody would let 
me inside. I’d take the elevator to the fifth floor and push open our 
door. Ghostlike, I’d sneak along to our old multicornered balconied 
kitchen where a strange woman stood pouring tea from our chipped 
enameled kettle into Dad’s orange polka-dot cup. It was the kettle that 
had me waking up in a cold sweat. 

Mom was tormented by the classic Soviet-emigre anxiety dream. Not 
about going back and being trapped behind the Iron Curtain. No, the 
one about finding herself back in Moscow with her family— empty-handed, 
with nary a single present for them. She’d wake up seared with guilt and 
send more money, more gifts to Russia. Our fellow emigres bought row 
houses, then semidetached houses, then split-level private houses with 
patios. Mom to this day owns nothing. 

★ ★ ★ 

It was the 1987 New Year’s card from Grandma Liza that sounded the 
first genuine hope. 

Consulted the OVIR about processing your invitation to Moscow. They don’t an- 
ticipate any problems!!! 


1980$: Moscow Through the Shot Glass 

By then perestroika (restructuring), glasnost (openness), and the 
now-forgotten early- Gorbachev term uskorenie (acceleration) had be- 
come the new Soviet slogans. 

“You wouldn’t believe what’s being said on TV,” breathless relatives 
cried in their crackly calls. “But shhh . . . it’s not for telephone conversation !” 

Even my mom, bitterly wised up by the demise of the Thaw and 
cynical about any USSR leadership, was suddenly buying the Gor- 
bachev optimism. The Radiant Future— perhaps it ms finally coming. 
For real this time! Once again a utopian, fairy-tale Russia beckoned, 
where store shelves would groan with bananas, wheat bulge in the fields, 
and the borders swing open. 

And the borders did open. 

In the early fall of 1987, thirteen years after our departure from 
Moscow, shortly before my twenty-fourth birthday. Mom came home 
from the Soviet consulate in New York. “Your gadalka Terri, the 
fortune-teller . . .” she muttered, shaking her head in wonderment. She 
displayed our blue American passports. Affixed to each was the official 
visitor visa to Moscow. 

My mother’s nightmares of returning to Rodina empty-handed set off 
a frenzy of gift buying, as though she were trying to pack all her years 
of guilt at leaving her family into the suitcases we were lugging back to 
the USSR. 

What unbeautiful suitcases they were. 

Four monster discount-store duffel bags, each resembling a lumpy 
black refrigerator on wheels. In the chaos of buying and packing I kept 
flashing back to our lean exodus with barely twenty pounds apiece. 
“Madam Frumkin, you’re a very wise woman,” a refugee greeter had 
complimented Mom in Rome in 1974. 

Now we were hauling back half a warehouse. 

What do you take to a country entirely deprived of consumer com- 
modities? Seventeen packets of two-for-a-dollar panty hose, nude and 
black, as “just in case” presents; instant coffee; eight batons of salami; 
ballpoint pens; wristwatches; garish flashing cigarette lighters; heart 



medicine; calculators; shampoo— and anything with any American 
logo, for kids. 

The specific requests from Moscow were simultaneously maddeningly 
particular and vague. Hooded terrycloth robes, must be blue. Two jumpsuits 
for a 125'Centimeter-long baby of the nice nomenklatura physician treat- 
ing Grandpa Naum. Knitting yarn— red with some golden thread— for 
a friend of a friend of someone who might one day help with admission 
to an exclusive health sanatorium. Door locks— because apparently per- 
estroika unleashed criminals all over Moscow. Disposable syringes. Be- 
cause Russians had now heard of AIDS. 

Requests for parts for Ladas and Zhigulis (Soviet autos) made Mom 
groan and gnash her teeth. 

I for my part insisted that Dad get no presents. Mom counterin- 
sisted on something neutral yet classy. She settled on a lavishly illus- 
trated book about Proust. 

Meanwhile, intent on a grand entrance to the country that scorned 
us for leaving, I outfitted myself with an extravagant vintage forties rac- 
coon coat. 

“Going back to visit Soyuz (the Union)?” asked the owner of the 
ninety-nine-cent store we’d emptied in Queens. He had a wise smile, a 
guttural Soviet- Georgian accent. 

“How many computers you taking with?” he inquired. 

None, we told him. 

You’re allowed two!” he said brightly. “So you’ll bring one IBM!” 

Which is how we got involved in a shady Georgian’s black market 
transaction, in exchange for three hundred bucks and a ride to Ken- 
nedy Airport from his cousin. The broad-shouldered cousin arrived 
promptly in a dented brown Chevy. He clucked approvingly at our 
monstrous duffel bags. 

A few miles along the Long Island Expressway he announced: “First 
time on highway!” 

It started pouring. We drove in tense silence. Then our dented, 
baggage-heavy Chevy skidded on the slippery road and, as if in slow 
motion, banged into a yellow cab alongside us. We felt our limbs; noth- 
ing seemed broken. The cops arrived and discovered the cousin had no 


198os: Moscow Through the Shot Glass 

driver’s license and an expired American guest visa. The word deporta - 
tion was uttered. 

How we got to JFK I can’t recall. I remember only the check-in lady 
at Delta informing us that while we might still catch the flight, our hags 
certainly wouldn’t. 

“My nightmare,” Mom bleated in a very small voice. 

“They’ll put the bags on the next plane,” a fellow returnee reas- 
sured us. “Of course, Soviet baggage handlers slash bags. Or if your lock 
is shitty-discount they just stick a hand in. Anything valuable by the 

Mom stayed awake the ten hours of the flight nervously trying to re- 
member what exactly she’d put near the surface inside our duffel bags. 

“Salami,” she finally said. 

★ ★ ★ 

And what is it like to be emigrants returned from the dead? To be res- 
urrected in glasnost-gripped Rodina? 

Your plane touches down right after a late-December snow- 
storm. There’s no jetway or bus. You descend and tramp along the 
white-muffled tarmac toward the terminal. You tramp very slowly. 
Or so it seems, because the clock freezes when you enter another 

The northern darkness and the sharp chill awaken a long-buried 
sensation from a childhood that suddenly no longer feels yours. For 
thirteen years you haven’t smelled a true winter, but you’re inhaling it 
now through the cloudy, warm cocoon of your breath. You keep tramp- 
ing. In the eerily slowed time you hear your pulse throbbing in your 
temples, and the squeaking of snow amplified as if Styrofoam were 
being methodically crushed by your ear. 

You glance at your mother; her face looks alien in the poisonous 
yellow of the airport lights. Her lips are trembling. She’s squeezing your 

With each loud, squeaky step you grow more and more terrified. Of 
what exactly you’re not quite sure. 



Normal time resumes in the chaos of the passport control lines. 

The uniformed kid in the booth stares at my photo, then at my rac- 
coon coat, then back at the photo, frowns, goes to consult with a col- 
league. I catch myself hoping that we’ll be sent back to New York. But 
he returns, stamps my American passport, and asks, in Russian: 

“So . . . you missed Rodina?” 

I detect a familiar sarcasm in the way he says Rodina, but I muster 
my best American smile and nod earnestly, realizing as I do that every- 
thing I’ve missed will probably have vanished. The loss of the imagi- 
nary Rodina. Was that what terrified me in the snow on the way to the 

From the baggage area through the glass pane, a distant heaving wall of 
greeters waves, gesticulates. 

“Papa!” Mom shrieks. 

“Dedushka Naum? Where . . . where?” 

And then I spot them — Granddad’s thick dark glass frames peering 
above a bouquet of mangy red carnations. 

Wild with excitement, Mom is now waving frantically to her brother 
and sister. Standing next to them, also waving, is a man with a mane of 
gray hair and vaguely familiar features. 

Something more familiar comes looming along the baggage car- 
ousel. They have arrived with us— our four epic duffel bags, with the 
Georgian’s IBM carton trailing behind. Each bag sports a neat slash 
near the zipper. 

“The salami . . .” murmurs Mom. 

In the frenzy of hugging, crying, touching, I finally recognize the man 
with the thick gray hair. It’s my father. But not the father I’d imag- 
ined from across the Atlantic— a romantically nihilist Alain Delon 
look-alike who abandoned us with cruel matter-of-factness. 


/9<Sos.- Moscow Through the Shot Glass 

The man now kissing me awkwardly is heavy and old, with polyester 
brown pants, shabby, square shoes with thick rubber soles, and a col- 
lapsed, sunken jaw. 

This is Sergei, my father, I’m thinking. And he has no teeth. 

“The salami, they stole our salami!” Mom keeps repeating, laughing 
madly, to Sashka, my gimpy uncle who wears a spiffy, furry karakul cap 
and seems jarringly, uncharacteristically sober. 

“ Chudo , chudo— miracle, miracle.” My aunt Yulia is wiping tears onto 
my raccoon coat. 

Glancing sideways at Dad’s toothless mouth, I realize this: I have 
forgiven him everything. 

The anguished nights back in Davydkovo with Mom, waiting for 
his key to turn in the lock, the divorce letter, the horrible birthday calls. 
Because while Mom and I have prospered, even flourished, my father’s 
life and his looks have been decaying. And I’m pretty sure this is true 
about Rodina generally. 

A triumphant mini-armada of two Lada cars delivered us to our for- 
mer apartment in Davydkovo. The squat USSR-issue Fiats, resembling 
soap dishes on wheels, proudly bore our epic duffel bags on their roofs. 
Their socialist trunks weren’t designed for ninety-nine-cent U.S. 

“The rich, they have their own ways . . .” snorted the pimply traffic 
cop who stopped us to extract the usual bribe. 

The forty-meter khrushcheba apartment where Liza and the entire 
family tearfully awaited wasn’t designed for our epic duffel bags either. 
Especially since my grandparents had invited two elephantine Odessa 
relatives to stay with them while we visited. 

And then we were there, thirteen years after our farewell dinner, 
back around Liza’s laden table. 

Nobody missed our eight stolen batons of New York salami. We 
didn’t realize this at the time, but 1987 was virtually the farewell year 
for the zakaz, the elite take-home food package Granddad still enjoyed, 
thanks to his naval achievements. Very soon the zakaz would vanish 



forever, along with most any sort of edible and, eventually, the USSR 
itself. I could still kick myself for not making a photo documenta- 
tion of Babushka Liza’s table. It was straight out of the 1952 Book of 
Tasty and Healthy Food. There were the vile, prestige cod liver conserves 
under gratings of hard-boiled eggs, the buttery smoked sturgeon balik, 
the Party-favored tongue, the inescapable tinned saira fish in tomato 
sauce— all arrayed on Stalinist baroque cut-crystalware my grandpar- 
ents had scored as fiftieth wedding anniversary gifts. 

“Black bread!” Mother kept squealing. “How I missed our black 
bread.” She squealed too about the sushki (dried mini-bagels), the zefir 
(pink rococo marshmallows), and the prianiki (gingerbread). That 
night, through my fitful sleep as we all bivouacked on cots in my grand- 
parent’s boxy living room, I heard the fizz of Mom’s Alka-Seltzer tablet 
dissolving in water, drowned out by the droning legal soap operas of her 
deaf aunt Judge Tamara, up from Odessa. 

“Chudo, chudo, chudo— miracle miracle.” Relatives tugged on our 
sleeves, as though we might be a mirage. Grandpa Naum was the hap- 
piest customer of all. His smile was wide, his tense intelligence work- 
er’s frown smoothed— as if thirteen years of shame and fear and moral 
dilemmas had magically slid away. His dogged loyalty to whatever re- 
gime was in power had paid off. All was ending well. The omniwise 
Gorbachevian State had magnanimously forgiven us prodigal traitors 
to Rodina. It was now fine even to openly condemn Stalinist crimes, a 
sentiment Granddad had bottled up for over three decades. 

“If only Gorbachev would restore the navy to its former glory” was 
his one lament. 

“Let’s thank the Party,” he thunderingly toasted, “for bringing our 
girls back to our Rodina!” 

“Fuck the Party!” shrieked the young glasnost generation. 

“Fuck Rodina!” the entire family chimed in unison. 

★ ★ ★ 

Our Moscow fortnight passed in a blur. Never in our lives have we felt so 
desired and loved, been kissed so hard, listened to with such wild curiosity. 


198os: Moscow Through the Shot Gtass 

A demonic hospitality possessed Mom to invite people she barely 
knew to visit us in America. Because now they could. 

“I’ll send you a visa, stay with us a month, we’ll show you our New 

I kept pinching her under the table. Our New York was a small one- 
bedroom in Queens that Mom and I shared with my antique Steinway 
grand and my six-foot-three boyfriend, a haughty British poststructuralist. 

“That first visit,” Aunt Yulia confided recently, “we found you so 
adorable, so American in your fancy fur coats. And more than a little 
demented!” She giggled. “How you loved everything about our shabby, 
shithole Rodina! Perhaps because of the snow?” 

True. A fairy-tale white had camouflaged all the sores and socialist 
decay. To our now-foreign eyes Moscow appeared as a magical Orien- 
talist cityscape, untainted by garish capitalist neon and billboards. Even 
my mother the Rodina-basher found herself smitten. With everything. 

The store signs: RYBA. MYASO. MOLOKO. (Fish. Meat. Milk.) These 
captions formerly signifying nothing but empty Soviet shelves and unbear- 
able lines were now to Mom masterpieces of neo- Constructivist graphic 
design. The metro stops — those teeming mosaic and marble terrors of her 
childhood, now stood revealed as shining monuments of twenty-four-karat 
totalitarian kitsch. Even the scowling pirozhki sales dames berating their 
customers were enacting a uniquely Soviet linguistic performance. 

Mom for her part very politely inquired what coins one might use 
for the pay phones. 

Grazhdanka. she was snarled at. “Citizen, you just fell from Mars?” 
Me in my vintage raccoon coat? I was branded as chuchelo, a scarecrow, 
a raggedy bum. 

In retrospect 1987 was an excellentyear to visit. Everything had changed. 
And yet it hadn’t. A phone call still cost two kopeks, and a three-kopek 
brass coin bought you soda with thick yellow syrup from the clunky 
gazirovka (soda) machine outside the maroon-hued, star-shaped Arbat 
metro station. Triangular milk cartons still jumbled and jabbed in avoska 
bags; Lenin’s bronze outstretched arm still pointed forward — often to 



Dumpsters and hospitals— with the slogan YOU’RE ON THE RIGHT 

At the same time, perestroika announced itself at every turn. I mar- 
veled at the new fashion accessory: a chain with an Orthodox cross! Mom 
couldn’t get over the books. Andrei Platonov (Russia’s Joyce, unpub- 
lished since the twenties), Mikhail Bulgakov’s previously suppressed 
works, collections of fiery contemporary essays exposing past Soviet 
crimes— all now in handsome official hardcovers, openly devoured on 
the bus, on the metro. People read in lines and at tram stops; they read as 
they walked, drunk on the new outpouring of truths and reassessments. 

Along newly pedestrianized Arbat Street, we stared at disgruntled 
Afghan war vets handing out leaflets. Then gaped at the new private 
“entrepreneurs” selling hammer-and-sickle memorabilia as ironic sou- 
venirs. Nestling matryoshka dolls held a tiny Gorbachev with a blotch 
on his head inside bushy-browed Brezhnev inside bald Khrushchev in- 
side (yelp) mustachioed Stalin — all inside a big squinty-eyed, goateed 
Lenin. We bought lots. 

Back at the Davydokovo apartment, we sat mesmerized in front of 
Granddad’s Avantgard brand TV. It was all porn all the time. Porn in 
three flavors: i) Tits and asses; 2) gruesome close-ups of dead bodies 
from war or crimes; 3) Stalin. Wave upon wave of previously unseen 
documentary footage of the Generalissimo. Of all the porn, number 
three was the most lurid. The erotics of power. 

★ ★ ★ 

And there was another phenomenon, one that reverberated deep in our 
imagination: Petlya Gorbacheva (Gorbachev’s Noose). The popular moni- 
ker for the vodka lines. 

They were astonishing. Enormous. And they were blamed entirely 
on the Party’s general (generalny ) secretary, now dubbed the mineral 
( mineralny ) secretary for his crusade to replace booze with mineral 
water. Even the abstemious leader himself would later amusedly cite a 
widespread gag from that very dry period. 

“I’m gonna go kill that Gorbachev motherfucker!” yells a guy in the 



J980S: Moscow Through the Shot Glass 

vodka line. Hours later he comes slumping back. “The line at the Krem- 
lin to kill him was even longer.” 

The joke barely conveys the popular wrath over Gorbachev’s anti- 
alcohol drive. 

At a mobbed, shoddy liquor shop near our former Arbat apartment, 
Mom and I watched a bedraggled old woman with the bluish complex- 
ion of a furniture-polish imbiber. Theatrically she flashed open her 
filthy coat of fake fur. Underneath she was naked. 

“Pila,pyu ihudu pit’!” she howled. (1 drank, I drink, I will drink!) 

On the faces of fellow vodka queuers I noted that existential, sod- 
den Russian compassion. 

The trouble in the alcoholic empire had started in May 1985 Just two 
months in office, Gorbach (the hunchback) issued a decree entitled On 
Measures to Overcome Drunkenness and Alcoholism. It was his first major pol- 
icy innovation — and so calamitous that his reputation inside the Soviet 
Union never recovered. 

The mineral secretary was of course right about Soviet drinking 
being a social catastrophe. Pre-perestroika statistics were secret and 
scant, but it’s been estimated that alcohol abuse caused more than 
90 percent of the empire’s petty hooliganism, nearly 70 percent of its 
murders and rapes, and almost half of its divorces—not to mention the 
extremely disturbing mortality rates. Perhaps a full-scale prohibition 
would have had some effect. Instead, Gorbachev promulgated the typi- 
cal half measures that ultimately made him so reviled by Russians. In 
a nutshell: after 1985 drinking simply became more expensive, compli- 
cated, and time-consuming. 

Vodka factories and liquor stores were shut, vineyards bulldozed, 
excessive boozing harshly punished. The sclerotic state sorely needed 
cash — among other things, to clean up the Chernobyl disaster — but it 
gave up roughly nine billion rubles a year from alcohol sales. Such sales, 
under the mineral secretary, took place only after two p.m. on work- 
days. Meaning the hungover workforce had to maneuver more skillfully 
than ever between the workplace and the liquor line. 



Not the most efficient way to combat alcohol-related loss of 

We had arrived in Moscow in late December. Getting booze for the 
holidays ranked at the top of everyone’s concerns. New Year’s festivities 
were about to commence, but store shelves were barren of that Soviet 
good-times icon: Sovetskoye champagne. Baking, too, was a wash: yeast 
and sugar had completely vanished, hoarded for samogon (moonshine). 
Fruit juices, cheapo pudushechki candies, and tomato paste had evapo- 
rated as well. Resourceful Soviet drinkers could distill hooch from any- 
thing. Kap-kap-kap. Drip-drip-drip. 

Trudging around snowy, parched perestroika Moscow, Mom and 
I kept dropping into liquor lines to soak up alcoholic political humor. 
The venom poured out where vodka didn’t. 

At the draconian penalties for consuming on the job: The boss is screw- 
ing his secretary. Masha, he whispers, go open the door-wide— so people don’t suspect 
were in here drinking. 

At the price hikes: Kid to dad: On TV, they’re saying vodka will become more 
expensive, Papa. Does it mean you’ll drink less ? No, son, says Papa, it means you’ll 
eat less. 

At the effect of the antialcohol drive: Gorbach visits a factory. See, com- 
rades, could you work like this after a bottle? Sure. After two? Tup. All right, five? 
Well, you see were working! 

★ ★ ★ 

To properly grasp the social and political disaster of Gorbachev’s Noose, 
you have to appreciate Russia’s long-soaked, -steeped, and -saturated 
history with vodka. So allow me to put our blissful family reunion into 
a state of suspended animation— befitting our fairy-tale visit— while I 
try to explain why our Rodina can only really be understood v zabutylie 
(through a bottle). 

Booze, as every Russian child, man, and dog knows, was the reason 
pagan Slavs became Christian. With the first millennium approach- 
ing, Grand Prince Vladimir of Rus decided to adopt a monotheistic 
religion. Fie began receiving envoys promoting their faiths. Geopoliti- 


/980s: Moscow Through the Shot Glass 

cally, Islam made good sense. But it banned alcohol! Whereupon 
Vladimir uttered his immortal line, “Drinking is the joy of the Rus, 
we can’t go without it.” So in 988 A.D. he adopted Byzantine Ortho- 
dox Christianity. 

The story might be apocryphal, but it puts a launch date on our Ro- 
dina’s path to the drunk tank. 

Originally Russians tippled mead, beer, and kvass (a lightly alco- 
holic fermented refreshment). Serious issues with zelenyzmey (the green 
serpent) surfaced sometime in the late-fourteenth century when dis- 
tilled grain spirits arrived on the scene. Called variously “bread wine” 
or “green wine” or “burnt wine,” these drinkables later became known 
as vodka, a diminutive of voda (water). 

Diminutive in name, a permanent spring flood in impact. 

Vodka’s revenue potential caught the czars’ eyes early. By the mid- 
seventeenth century the state held a virtual monopoly on distilling 
and selling, and for most of the nineteenth century, one third of pub- 
lic monies derived from liquor sales. Then came the First World War. 
The hapless czar Nicholas II put his empire on the wagon, fearful of 
the debacle of the Russo-Japanese War a decade earlier, a humiliation 
blamed on the sodden state of the military. Bad move. Nikolai’s booze 
ban starved Russia's wartime coffers; the resulting epidemic of illicit 
moonshining destabilized the crucial grain market. Grain shortages led 
to hunger; hunger led to revolution. (Perhaps the mineral secretary in 
the twilight of his own crumbling empire might have paid closer atten- 
tion to history?) 

Even so, the Bolsheviks were no fans of vodka, and they initially 
kept up prohibition. Lenin, who occasionally indulged in white wine or 
a Munich pilsner while in exile, insisted the Russian proletariat had “no 
need of intoxication,” and deplored his utopian State trading in “rot- 
gut.” The proletariat, however, felt differently. Deprived of vodka, it 
got blasted into oblivion on samogon supplied by the peasantry, who pre- 
ferred to divert their scarce, precious grain and bread reserves to illegal 
distilling rather than surrender them to the requisitioning Reds. The 
samogon flood overwhelmed the sandbags. By the mid-i920s a full state 
liquor monopoly was once again in effect. 



The monopoly’s most ardent advocate? One Iosif Vissarionovich 
Stalin. “Socialism can’t be built with white gloves,” he hectored diffi- 
dent comrades at a 1925 Party congress. With no other source of capi- 
tal, liquor sales could and should provide a temporary cash cow. The 
temporary ran on and on, financing the lion’s share of Stalin’s roaring 
industrialization, and later, military defense. 

World War II descended; Russia boozed on. A classic fixture of 
wartime lore was the “commissar’s IOO grams”— the vodka ration for 
combatants (about a large glass) prescribed by Grandpa Naum’s Len- 
ingrad protector, the bumbling commissar of defense, Klim Voroshi- 
lov. On the home front, too, vodka kept flowing. Despite massive price 
hikes, it provided one sixth of state income in 1944 and 1945 — the be- 
leaguered empire’s biggest single revenue source. 

By Brezhnev s day our Rodina was in the collective grip of “white 
fever” (the DTs). Or, to use our rich home-brewed slang, Russia was 

kak sapozhnik— “drunk as a cobbler” 
vstelku— “smashed into a shoe sole” 
v dugu — “bent as a plough” 
kosaya — “cross-eyed” 
na broviakh — “on its eyebrows” 
na rogakh — “on its horns” 
pod bankoy — “under a jar” 
vdrebezgi — “in shatters” 

By this time national drinking rituals had long been set, codified, 
mythologized endlessly. The seventies were the heyday of the pollitra 
(half-liter bottle), priced at 3.62 rubles, a number with a talismanic ef- 
fect on the national psyche. There was the sacramental granenniy stakan 
(the beveled twelve-sided glass); the ritual of chipping in na troikh 
(splitting a pollitra three ways); the obligatory “sprinkling” to celebrate 
anything from a new tractor to a Ph.D.; and the “standing of a bottle” 
(a bribe) in exchange for every possible favor, be it plumbing or heart 


79<Sos.- Moscow Through the Shot Glass 

Vodka shimmered in its glass as Russia’s poetry, its mythos, its 
metaphysical joy. Its cult, religion, and signifier. Vodka was a liquid cul- 
tural yardstick, an eighty-proof vehicle of escape from the socialist daily 
grind. And well, yes, a massive national tragedy. Just as significantly, 
before — and especially during — Gorbachev’s antialcohol push, th epollitra 
served as a unit of barter and currency far more stable than the ruble, 
which was guzzled away anyhow. Vodka as cure? From the common 
cold (heated with honey) to hypertension (infused with walnut mem- 
branes) to whatever existential malaise afflicted you. In the bottom of 
the vodka glass, Russians found Truth. 

And this Truth Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev was taking away. 

To his credit, statisticians later established that male life expectancy 
rose during the mineral secretary’s temperance drive. Then it plum- 
meted. Between 1989 and 1994, well into Yeltsin’s vodka-logged rule, 
death rates among males ages thirty-five to forty-four rose by 74 per- 
cent. But as Mayakovsky said: “Better to die of vodka than of boredom.” 

Boredom meaning . . . the clutches of sobriety. At a research institute 
where Dad worked-slash-imbibed before he joined the Mausoleum Re- 
search Lab, he had a sobutilnik (“co-bottler,” the term for that crucial 
drinking buddy), a craggy old carpenter named Dmitry Fedorovich. 
After the first shot, Dmitry the Carpenter always talked of his brother. 
Flow this brother was near death from a kidney ailment, and how Dmi- 
try Fedorovich had lovingly sneaked into the hospital with “medicine”: 
a chetvertinka (quarter liter) and a big soggy pickle. 

The kidney sufferer partook and instantly died. 

“And to think that if I hadn’t gotten there on time he’d have died 
sober,” the carpenter sobbed, shedding tears into his beveled vodka 
glass. His co-bottlers cried with him. 

To die sober. Could a Russian male meet a more terrible end? 

★ ★ ★ 

Like all Russian families, mine has its own entanglements with the green 
serpent, though by the Russian definition of alcoholism — trembling 



hands, missed workdays, full-blown delirium, untimely death— only 
my uncle Sashka truly qualified. As an alkogolik— a.k.a. alkash, alkanaut, 
alkimist — he was a figure of awe even among the most sloshed members 
of Moscow’s intelligentsia. His status derived chiefly from the Acci- 
dent, which happened when Mom was four months pregnant with me. 

One day. Dad, who’d been mysteriously disappearing, telephoned 
Mom from the Sklif, Moscow’s notorious trauma hospital. 

“We wanted to spare you in your state,” he mumbled. 

At the Sklif, Mom found her then twenty-two-year-old baby brother 
unconscious, every bone broken, a tube sticking out of his throat. The 
walls and ceiling were splattered with blood. She almost miscarried. 

Several days before, Sashka had lurched up to the door of Naum and 
Liza’s fifth-floor Arbat apartment, blind-drunk. But he couldn’t find 
his keys. So he attempted the heroic route of alky bohemian admirers 
of Yulia, my femme fatale aunt. To win her heart they’d climb from the 
landing window to her balcony — a circus act even for the sober. 

Not knowing that the busy balcony railing was loose, Sashka 
climbed out from the window. 

My uncle and the railing fell all five floors to the asphalt below. 

He landed right at the feet of his mother, who was walking my lit- 
tle cousin Masha. When the hospital gave Grandma Liza his bloodied 
clothes, the key was in his pocket. 

After six horrific months at the Sklif, Uncle Sashka emerged a half- 
invalid— one leg shortened, an arm semiparalyzed, speech impaired— 
but with his will to drink undiminished. 

When we moved to our Arbat apartment, Sashka would often be 
dragged home unconscious by friendly co-bottlers or kind passersby. Or 
Mom and Dad would fetch him from the nearby drunk tank. He spent 
nights in our hallway reeking so badly, our dog Biddy ran away howling. 
Mornings after, I sat by his slumped body, wiping blood from his nose 
with a wet rag, waiting for him to come to and teach me a ditty in his 
rich and poetic alcoholic vernacular. 

I particularly remember one song charting the boozer’s sequence, 
its pungency alas not fully translatable. 


79 80 s: Moscow Through the Shot Glass 

In a day we drank up all the vodka 
Then we guzzled spirt and sa-mo-gon\ 

Down our throats after which we poured 
Politura and o-de-kolonl 

From Dad I knew that two- hundred- proof industrial spirt (ethyl 
alcohol) was best drunk on the exhale, nostrils squeezed shut lest you 
choke on the fumes. Samogon I knew also from Dad, who sometimes dis- 
tilled it in our small kitchen using Mom’s pressure cooker and high-tech 
lab paraphernalia pilfered from Lenin’s Mausoleum Lab. Politura (wood 
varnish) was clearly far grimmer stuff, and odekolon (cheapo eau de co- 
logne) wasn’t exactly fruit compote either. 

Sashka and his ilk drank many other things besides, in those lushy 
pre-Gorbachev years. Down the hatch went hormotukha (cut-rate sur- 
rogate port poetically nicknamed “the mutterer”), denaturat (ethanol 
dyed a purplish blue), and tormozok (brake fluid). Also BF surgical glue 
(affectionately called “Boris Fedorovich”), ingeniously spun with a 
drill in a bucket of water and salt to separate out the good stuff. Like 
all Soviet alkanauts, Sashka massively envied MIG-25 pilots, whose 
airplanes — incidentally co-invented by Artem Mikoyan, brother of Sta- 
lin’s food commissar— carried forty liters of the purest, highest-grade 
spirits as a deicer and were nicknamed the letayushchy gastronom (flying 
food store). That the planes crashed after pilots quaffed the deicer 
they’d replaced with water didn’t deter consumption. 

As a kid I found nothing deviant or unpleasant about Sashka’s be- 
havior. The best and brightest of Soviet arts, science, and agriculture 
imbibed likewise. Far from being a pariah, my limping, muttering uncle 
had a Ph D. in art history, three gorgeous daughters, and a devoted fol- 
lowing among Moscow intellectuals. 

Our Russian heart, big and generous, reserved a soft spot for the 

Lying dead drunk on the street he was pitied by women, the envy 
of men. Under our red banner he replaced Slavic Orthodoxy’s yurodivy 
(holy fool) as a homeless, half-naked prophet who roamed the streets 



and spoke bitter truths. (Bitter— gorkaya, from gore, meaning grief— was 
the folk synonym for vodka.) For abstainers, on the other hand, our big 
Russian heart had nothing but scorn. They were despised, teased, goaded 
to drink, regarded as anti-Russian, antisocial, antispiritual— Jewish, 
perhaps!— and altogether unpatriotic. 

And theirs was the poisoned cloak Gorbachev chose to march 
forth in. 

The last time I saw Sashka was in the early nineties, when he came to 
visit us post-Gorbach in Queens. He spent his fortnight inside our Jack- 
son Heights apartment, afraid to go into Manhattan lest skyscrapers fall 
on his head. During his stay, Grandmother Liza died. When he heard, 
Sashka guzzled the entire bottle of Frangelico hazelnut liqueur Mom had 
hidden in a cupboard, except for the bit I managed to drink too. He and 
I sat sobbing until Mom came home from work and we told her the news. 

He died prematurely a few years later, age fifty-seven, a true alkash. 

“Are you NUTS?" demanded the Moscow morgue attendant, when 
his daughter Dasha brought in the body. “Who brings in such unsightly 
cadavers? Beautify him a bit, come back, and then we’ll talk.” 

My grandma Alla was a happier drunk. 

Alla drank beautifully. She drank with smak (savor), iskra (spark), 
and a full respect for the rituals and taboos surrounding the pollitra. 
She called her pollitra trvorcheskaya— the artistic one— a play on palitra, 
the painter’s palette. I was too young to be a proper co-bottler, but I 
was hers in spirit. I soaked up vodka rituals along with grandmotherly 
lullabies. We were a land in which booze had replaced Holy Water, and 
the rites of drinking were sacramental and strict. 

Imbibing solo was sacrilege numero uno. 

Lone boozers equaled antisocial scum or worse: sad, fucked-up, sick 
alkogolik s. 

“Anyutik, never— never!— have I drunk a single gram without com- 
pany!” Alla would boast. 


79<Sos: Moscow Through the Shot Glass 

“Alla Nikolaevna!” Mom would call from the stove with deep paren- 
tal reproach in her voice. “Any reason you’re telling that to afour-year'old?” 

When Alla drank with her girlfriends, she’d pour limonad into my own 
twelve-sided glass before apportioning vodka among real co-bottlers 
in exact fifty-gram rations. Glaz-almaz (eye sharp as a diamond) — the 
co-bottlers congratulated her pour. 

Following their cue. I’d stare lovingly at my glass and bark an an- 
ticipatory mm (so) before the toasting commenced. Toasting was manda- 
tory. Anything from an existential “Budem” (We shall be) to flowery 
encomiums for every dead relative. People from the Caucasus particu- 
larly excelled at encomiums. 

Like the adults I’d exhale sharply— then tilt back my head. Down it 
all in one gulp, aimed right at the tonsils. Yelp “Khorosho poshla” (it went 
down well) and purposefully swallow an appetizer before properly in- 
haling again. 

Drinking without a zakuska (a food chaser) was another taboo. Cu- 
cumber pickles, herring, caviars, sharp crunchy sauerkraut, garlicky 
sausage. The limitless repertoire of little extra-savory Russian dishes 
seems to have been created expressly to accompany vodka. I n the lean 
post-war years Alla and the teenage Sergei grated onion, soaked it in 
salt, and smothered it in mayo— the zakuska of poverty. Men tippling at 
work favored foil-wrapped rectangles of processed Friendship Cheese, 
or a Spam-like conserve with a bucolic name: Zavtrak Turista (Break- 
fast of Tourists). Foodless altogether? After the shot you made a show of 
inhaling your sleeve. Flence the expression zakusit’ manu fakturoy (to chase 
with fabric). Just one of the countless untranslatables comprehensible 
only to those who drank in the USSR. 

Silence, finally, was also a despised drinker no-no. The Deep Truth 
found in a glass demanded to be shared with co-bottlers. In one of Alla’s 
favorite jokes, an intelligent (intellectual) is harangued by two allkogoliks 
to chip in to make three. (Rounding up strangers to split apollitra was 
customary; co-bottling always required a quorum of three.) To get rid 
of the drunks, the reluctant intelligent hands them a ruble, but they insist 
that he drink his share. He does. He runs off. His co-bottlers chase 
after him halfway around Moscow. 



“What . . . what do you want from me now?” he cries out. 

“A popizdet Obscene slang roughly translatable as “How about 
shooting the shit, dude?” 

★ ★ ★ 

The fifty-gram gulps of moonshine, the herring, the pickles, the 
toasts— shooting the shit in a five-meter Moscow kitchen shrouded in 
smoke from coarse Yava cigarettes— these were what reestablished a 
fragile bond between me and my father, in the snow-mantled capital of 

Were back in December ’87 once again, our visitor fairy tale 

This bond with Dad was, and would remain, unsentimental, a 
friendship, masculine almost, rather than one of those histrionic, 
kiss-kiss Russian kinships. And in future years it would be oiled and 
lubricated with vodka and spirt— samogon, too. Because as an offspring 
of the USSR, how to truly know your own father — or Rodina? — until 
you’ve become his adult equal, a fellow co-bottler? 

It didn’t take many hours of boozing with Dad to realize how wrong 
I’d been about him at Sheremetyevo Airport. I, a smiley American now, 
arriving from a country that urged you to put your money where your 
mouth was— I mistook Sergei’s sunken mouth for the sign of a terrible 
life of decay. He saw things differently. In the loss of his teeth he’d 
found liberation, it turns out — from convention, from toothpaste lines, 
from the medieval barbarism of Soviet dentistry. His first few teeth 
had been knocked out accidentally by his baby, Andrei; gum disease 
took the rest. With each new gap in his mouth my father felt closer and 
closer to freedom. 

And women, they loved him regardless. Lena, the pretty mistress 
sixteen years his junior, waited five years while he “sorted things out” 
with his second wife, Masha. Masha and Dad drank well together but 
sucked as a couple. That marriage officially ended in 1982 after Masha 
hit Dad on the head with a vodka bottle. Whereupon Dad and Lena got 


79<SOs: Moscow Through the Shot Glass 

Better even than no teeth, Sergei had no real employment. 

Not having to report daily for sluzhha — the dreaded socialist toil — this 
was the unholy grail of slacker intelligentsia males of his generation. 

Three years after we emigrated Sergei was expelled from his pres- 
tigious and classified job at the Mausoleum Lab. It took that long for 
the thick resident KGB stool to realize that Dad’s first wife was a trai- 
tor to Rodina, and that Sergei co-bottled with dangerous dissidents. 
Under some innocent pretense Dad was summoned to the local mili- 
tia office. The two KGB comrades greeted him warmly. With practi- 
cally fraternal concern, they chided Dad for losing his footing in Soviet 
society. Hinted the hint: that all could be fixed if Comrade Bremzen 
agreed to inform on his dissident co-bottlers. My father declined. His 
nice mausoleum boss, teary-eyed, handed him resignation papers. Dad 
left the cadaver-crowded basement with a sense of dread, but also a cer- 
tain lightness of being. He had just turned forty and no longer served 
Lenin’s immortal remains. 

Subsequent, briefer stints at top research centers intensified Sergei’s 
disdain for socialist toil. At the Institute of Experimental Veterinary 
Science, the Ph.D.s got fat on bounty looted during collective farm 
calls. The head of the Bee Ailments section had amassed a particularly 
exciting stock of artisanal honey. Dad resigned again, though not before 
pilfering a Czech screwdriver set he still owns. 

Full unemployment, however, was not a viable option in our righ- 
teous Rodina. To avoid prison under the Parasite Law, Dad cooked up 
a Dead Souls kind of scheme. A connection landed him fictitious em- 
ployment at Moscow’s leading oncology research lab. Once a month he 
came in to collect his salary, which he promptly handed over to his boss 
on a deserted street corner, keeping a small cut for himself. His only 
obligation? The compulsory collective-farm labor stints. Together with 
elite oncology surgeons Dad fed cows and dug potatoes. The outings 
had their pastoral charms. The bottle of medical spirt made its first ap- 
pearance on the morning bus to the kolkhoz. Arriving good and pulver- 
ized, the leading lights of Soviet oncology didn’t dry out for two weeks. 
When that “job” ended. Dad got another, better “arrangement.” His 
work papers now bristled with a formidable employment record; the 



state pension kept ticking. All the while he luxuriated Oblomov-like 
on his homemade divan, reading novels, listening to opera, snagging a 
few rubles doing technical translations from languages he barely knew. 
While his devoted wives toiled. 

My romantic mom defied the Soviet byt (daily grind) by heroically 
fleeing to zagranitsa. Dad beat it in his own crafty way. 

But he wasn’t simply a crafty do-nothing sloth, my dad. 

★ ★ ★ 

The dinner invitation that December 1987 sounded almost like an 
awkward, weirdly formal marriage proposal. 

“I would like to . . . er . . . receive you,” Sergei told Mom on one of our 
walks. He meant to infuse the stilted “receive” with his usual irony, but 
his voice shook unexpectedly. 

Mother shrugged. “We can just drop by for tea sometime.” 

“Chai wouldn’t do,” my dad pressed. “But please give me a few days to 
prepare.” The anxiety in his voice was so palpable, I accepted on Mom’s 
behalf with a grinning American “Thank you.” 

“Amerikanka,” Father said, touching my raccoon coat with something 
approaching paternal affection. Ah yes, of course: Russians never dis- 
pense grins and thank-yous so easily. 

For the visit Mom wore much more makeup than usual. And she 
too smiled, prodigiously, flashing a perfect new dental crown. At Dad’s 
doorstep she managed to look ten feet tall. 

Sergei had long since moved from our Arbat apartment to an at- 
mospheric lane across the cement-hued Kalinin Prospect. His snug 
thirty-five-meter one-bedroom overlooked the Politburo Polyclinic. 
From his window I peered down on the lumbering silhouettes of 
black official Chaika cars — hauling infirm nomenklatura for some quality 

I stared at the Chaikas to avoid the sight of the blond, Finnish, 
three-legged table. It was a relic from our old life together. Familiar to 
the point of tears, there was a scratch from my eight-year-old vandalism, 
and a burn mark from Mother’s chipped enameled teakettle— -the kettle 


79SOS: Moscow Through the Shot Glass 

of my American nightmares. On the heavy sideboard sat the pewter 
antique samovar Mom and I had found in the garbage dump one rainy 
April, carried home, lunging over the puddles, and polished with tooth 
powder. My insipid childhood watercolors were up on Sergei’s walls as 
if they were Matisses. I noted one particularly anemic still life. The 
faux-rustic vase filled with bluebells had been painted by Mom. 

“I think he constructed a cult of us after we left,” she hissed in 
my ear. 

As Dad scurried in and out of the tiny kitchen in his slippers, his 
wife, Lena, prattled in a clear, ringing Young Pioneer voice. Unset- 
tlingly, she had the same build and short haircut as my mother, but with 
a turned-up nose, far less makeup, and pale eyes of startling crystal- 
line blue. In those crystalline eyes I saw flashes of terror. She was here: 
the dread First Wife. Resurrected from exile, returned in triumph, and 
now semireclining on Dad’s maroon divan in the pose of a magnani- 
mous Queen Mother. 

“Lenochka,” Mother said to her, “can’t you persuade Sergei to get 

We’d already unloaded the gifts. Proust for Dad, choice nuggets of 
ninety-nine-cent American abundance for Lena, plus an absurdly ex- 
pensive bottle of Smirnoff from the hard currency store, where there 
were no enraged mobs. 

To our swank, soulless booze my toothless father replied with home 
brews of staggering sophistication. The walnut-infused amber samogon, 
distilled in Mom’s ancient pressure cooker, suggested not some pro- 
letarian hooch but a noble, mysterious whiskey. In another decanter 
glimmered shocking-pink spirt. Steeped in sugared lingonberries, it was 
known (I learned) as nesmiyanovka (“don’t-laugh-ovka”) after Alexander 
Nesmiyanov, Russia’s leading chemist, at whose scientific research facil- 
ity the recipe had been concocted by his savvy associates. Miraculously 
the lingonberries softened the hundred-proof ethyl harshness, and in 
my stomach the potion kept on — and on — blossoming like the precious 
bud of a winter carnation. 

“The canapes— weren’t they your favorite?” cooed my dad, handing 
Mom on her divan a dainty gratineed cheese toast. 



“Friendship Cheese, cilantro, and, what, adzhika (spicy Georgian 
chili paste)?” she commented coolly. 

“Made the adzhika myself,” noted Dad— humbly, almost abjectly— as 
he proffered another plate, a wonder of herring and egg thingies. 

His next salvo was borscht. 

It was nothing like Mom’s old flick-of-the-wrist vegetarian version, 
that small triumph coaxed out of tired root vegetables and a can of to- 
mato paste. My mother was a flighty, impulsive, dream-spinning cook. 
My deadbeat dad turned out to be a methodical, determined master 
craftsman. He insisted on painstakingly extracting/res/t juice from car- 
rots and beets for his borscht, adding it to the rich rounded beef stock, 
steeping the whole thing for a day, then flourishing a last-minute sur- 
prise of pounded garlic and shkvarki , the crisp, salty pork crackling. 

Dad’s satsivi, the creamy Georgian walnut-sauced chicken, left me 
equally speechless. I thought of the impossible challenge of obtaining 
a decent chicken in Moscow. Of the ferocious price of walnuts at the 
Central Market near the Circus; of the punishing labor of shelling and 
pulverizing them; of the multiple egg yolks so opulently enriching the 
sauce. With each bite I was more and more in awe of my father. I for- 
gave him every last drop there was still left to forgive. Once again, I was 
the Pavlovian pup of my childhood days — when I salivated at the mere 
thought of the jiggly buttermilk jellies and cheese sticks he brought on 
his sporadic family visits. This man, this crumple-mouthed grifter in 
saggy track pants, he was a god in the kitchen. 

And wasn’t this dinner his way of showing his love? 

But all the juice-squeezing and pulverizing, the monthly budget 
blown on one extravagant chicken dish — it wasn’t for me. It was not 
into my face Dad was now gazing, timidly seeking approval. 

The living-slash-dining room suddenly felt stiflingand overcrowded. 
I slipped off to the kitchen, where Lena was glumly chain-smoking 
Dad’s Yavas. Her glass held pink lingonberry spirt. Unwilling to let her 
commit the cardinal sin of drinking alone, I offered a dog-eared toast. 

“’ Za znakomstvo\” (Here’s to getting to know you!) 

“Davay na brudershaft?” she proposed. Drinking na brudershaft (to 


1980s: Moscow Through the Shot Glass 

brotherhood) is a ritual in which two new friends interlace arms, gulp 
from each other’s glass, kiss, and thereafter address each other as ty (the 
informal, familial form of you). We emptied our shot glasses, kissed. 
Lena’s cheek had a gullible, babyish softness. We were now co-bottlers, 
Dad’s new wife and me. 


Back in the living room I found Sergei murmuring away at Mom’s 
side. “In those days,” I overheard, “food tasted better to me . . .” 

Mom smiled the same polite but regal smile. It never left her face 
the whole evening. 

We drank the last, parting ritual shot. “N a pososhok.” (For the walk- 
ing staff.) 

“Marvelous dinner!” Mom offered in the cramped hallway as Dad 
longingly draped the pseudomink rabbit coat over her shoulders. “Who 
knew you were such a klass cook?” Then, with it’s-been-nice-seeing-you 
American breeziness: “You must give me your recipe for that beef stew 
in a clay pot.” 

“Lariska!” muttered Dad, with barely concealed desperation. "It was 
your recipe and your clay pot. The one I gave you for your birthday.” 

“Da? Really now?” said my mother pleasantly. “I don’t remember 
any of this.” 

And that was that. Her empty Americanized smile told him the 
past was past. 

“Bravo, Tatyana!” I growled to her in the elevator. “Stanislavsky ap- 
plauds you from his grave.” Mom in her makeup gave a worn, very So- 
viet grin involving no teeth. 

My “Tatyana” reference was to every Russian woman’s favorite scene 
in Pushkin’s verse novel, Eugene Onegin. Tatyana, the ultimate lyric hero- 
ine of our literature, meets up again with Onegin, the mock-Byronic 
protagonist who’d cruelly scorned her love when she was a melancholy 
provincial maiden. Now she’s all dressed up, rich and cold and imperi- 
ous at a glamorous St. Petersburg ball. Encountering her after years, 
Onegin is the one who’s dying of love — and Tatyana is the one who does 
the scorning. The sad part? She’s still in love with Onegin! But she’s 



now married, has moved on, and the past is the past. The sadder part 
for Mom? It was Sergei who was married. 

From my cot in the overheated darkness of my grandparents’ apart- 
ment I thought I heard my mother crying, ever so quietly. As the rela- 
tives from Odessa snored on. 



1990S: BROKEN 

Abysta, the bland Abkhazian cornmeal mush, comes alive with lashings 
of salty young local suluguni cheese. And so I tucked some suluguni into 
my Abkhaz gruel, then watched it melt. 

It was Christmas Day, 1991 — a bit before seven p.m. 

In the kitchen of a prosperous house in the winemaking country- 
side, women with forceful noses and raven-black hair tended to huge, 
bubbling pots. My boyfriend, John, and I had arrived a few days before 
in Abkhazia-— a breakaway autonomous republic of Georgia one thou- 
sand long miles south of Moscow. Primal, ominous darkness consumed 
Sukhumi, the capital of this palm-fringed subtropical Soviet Riviera. 
There was no electricity, no drinking water. On blackened streets teen- 
age boys waved rifles and a smell of catastrophe mingled with the salty, 
moist Black Sea wind. We’d come during the opening act of Abkhazia’s 
bloody conflict with Georgia, unresolved to this day. But here, in the 
country house of a winemaker, there still lingered an illusion of peace 
and plentitude. 

The women hauled platters of cheese bread into the room, where 
dozens of men crowded around a long table. Innumerable toasts in our 
honor had been fueled already by homemade Izabella wine. Not al- 
lowed by tradition to sit with the men, the women cooked and watched 
TV in the kitchen. I dropped in to pay my respects. 



At exactly seven p.m. my spoon of corn mush froze midway to my 

A familiar man occupied the screen. The man wore a natty dark 
pinstriped suit, but exhibited none of his usual autocratic vigor. He 
seemed tense, spent, his skin tone a loony pink against the gray back- 
drop with a scarlet Soviet flag on his left. The contours of the birthmark 
blotches on his forehead looked drawn with thick pencil. 

“Dear fellow countrymen, compatriots!” said Mikhail Sergeevich 
Gorbachev. It was six years and nine months since he’d assumed lead- 
ership of Sovetsky Soyuz, the Soviet Union. 

“Due to the situation which has evolved . . ” 

The situation being as follows: that August, a coup against Gor- 
bachev had been attempted by eight extremely dimwitted Party hard- 
liners (some obviously drunk at the time). The putsch collapsed almost 
straightaway, but the pillars of centralized Soviet power were cracked. 
Boris Yeltsin, fractious new president of the USSR’s Russian republic, 
went leaping in, emerging as resistance leader and popular hero. Gor- 
bachev still hung on— barely: a wobbler atop a disintegrating empire. 

“Due to the situation . . .” 

My mouth fell open all the way as Gorbachev continued speaking. 

★ ★ ★ 

Much had changed in my own situation since my first time back in Mos- 
cow in December of 1987. Returning to Queens, I’d sobbed uncontrol- 
lably, facedown on Mother’s couch. “There everyone loves us!” I wailed. 
“Here we have nothing and nobody!” 

I had other reasons to cry. No wondergadalka Terri, the fortune-teller, 
was mute about my future as an international keyboard virtuoso. My 
wrist had become painfully disfigured by a lump the size of a mirabelle 
plum. I could barely stretch a keyboard octave or muster a chord louder 
than mezzo forte. The more I tortured the ivories, the more the plum 
on my wrist tortured me. 

A stern-browed orthopedist prescribed instant surgery. 

But a pianistic trauma guru had a different prescription. Because 


I990S: Broken Banquets 

my technique was ALL WRONG. Unless I relearned piano from scratch, 
she inveighed, my “ganglion” lump would just return. I postponed my 
Juilliard M A exam and signed up for her rehabilitation course. I’d been 
playing since I was six, starting on our Red October upright piano 
in Moscow. Into the sound I produced— my sound — I’d poured my 
entire identity. Now, at twenty-four, I was relearning scales with my 
plum-lumpy wrist. I still remember my face reflected in the guru’s shiny 
Steinway. I looked suicidal. 

To come up with her weekly wad of crisp bills I took translating 
gigs, using Italian mustily recalled from our refugee layover in Rome. 
A cookbook as hefty as a slab of Etruscan marble landed one day on my 
desk. Instead of andante spianato and allegro con brio, my life was now to 
be occupied by spaghetti al pesto and vitello tonnato. Glumly I transcribed 
recipes onto index cards, while in the same room John, my boyfriend, 
was finishing his Ph.D. thesis — so rife with Derrida-speak that it was, 
to me, Swahili. 

John and I had met in the mideighties when he arrived in New 
York on a Fulbright. Cambridge-haughty, he wrote for trendy Artforum 
and deconstructed obscure Brit punk bands. Me, I brooded over my 
Schumann and lived with my mom in an immigrant ghetto. But some- 
how we clicked, and soon he was colonizing my bedroom in Queens. The 
Derridarian, Mom christened him — a being from a mystifying other 
planet. “And what do yo« do?” condescended John’s post-structuralist 
pals. I stared at the floor. I labored at scales and translated recipes. 

The idea came out of nowhere, a flicker that lit up my dismal brain. 

What if . . . I myself wrote a cookbook? Russian, of course. But em- 
bracing more so the cuisines of the whole USSR, in all its multiethnic 
diversity? My resident Derridarian magnanimously volunteered him- 
self as coauthor, to help with my “wonky” immigrant English. 

I remember our fever the day our proposal went out to publishers. 

And their icy responses. “What, a book about breadlines?” 

Then, stunningly, a yes— from the publisher of the cookbook of the 
burgeoning new foodie Zeitgeist, The Silver Palate. 

Contract signed, I was drifting down Broadway when a heckler 
piped up in my dizzied head. 



“You fraud'. What re your credentials? Zero, a big fat Russian nol’l” 
Sure, I’d learned some recipe-writing from my Italian job, cooked 
enthusiastically with my mom, occasionally even gawked at overpriced 
chevres at Dean & Deluca. But watching Julia or Jacques on TV or 
leafing through the glossy layouts in Gourmet, I felt the same emigre 
alienation that had gripped me during my first bleak Philadelphia win- 
ter. Some capitalists were boning duck for a gala to which I wasn’t in- 
vited. This eighties “foodie” world of pistachio pesto and mushroom 
duxelles— I was a rank outsider to it. A class enemy, even. 

But in my floppy handbag rested our signed contract and the chicken 
I’d already bought for recipe testing. 

By the time I finished the opening chapter, on zakuski, the lump on 
my wrist had disappeared. By chapter two— soups— my guru-directed 
fingers were effortlessly tossing off octaves. But somehow the desire 
was gone. The bombastic Rachmaninoff chords felt hollow under my 
hands. My sound wasn’t mine. For the first time in my adult life, plumb- 
ing the depths of late Beethoven no longer claimed my heart. Well into 
salads I played my Juilliard M A exam (adequately), shut the lid on my 
Steinway, and have hardly touched the ivories since. 

The all-consuming passion that sustained me all these years had 
been supplanted. By a cookbook. 

★ ★ ★ 

I realize, gazing back across my Brezhnevian childhood, that two par- 
ticular Moscow memories propelled me on my food- and travel-writing 
career. Two visions from the socialist fairy tale of abundance and ethnic 

A fountain. A market. 

The fountain was golden! Druzhba N arodov, or Friendship of Nations, 
it was called— and it glittered spectacularly inside VDNKh (Exhibition 
of National Economic Achievements), that sprawling totalitarian Dis- 
neyland where in 1939 my five-year-old mother saw Eden. 

Grandma Alla and I liked to sit on the fountain’s red granite edge, 
cracking sunflower seeds as sparrows peeped and the water jetted 


! 990s.- Broken Banquets 

fantastically among sixteen larger-than-life golden statues. They were 
of kolkhoz girls in ethnic costumes, set in a circle around a baroque 
eruption of wheat. The fountain was completed right after Stalin’s 
death, and gilded (so people whispered) at Beria’s orders. “National 
in form, socialist in content” — a spectacle of the happy family of our 
Socialist Union republics. How could I ever confess to my anti-Soviet 
mom that I, a cynical kid exposed to samizdat, was utterly mesmerized 
by this Soviet imperialist fantasy? That in their wreaths, tiaras, hats, 
ribbons, and braids the golden maidens were my own ethnic princesses? 

The friendship of nations . . . 

The hackneyed phrase was one of the most powerful propaganda 
mantras of the Soviet regime. Druzhba narodov: it celebrated our empire’s 
diversity. Compensated us for our enforced isolation from the unat- 
tainable zagranitsa. What comrade, went the official line, needed crap 
capitalist Paris when more than 130 languages were spoken inside his 
own borders? When to the east he could behold the tiled splendors of 
Samarkand; enjoy white, healthy lard in Ukraine; frolic on pine-fringed 
Baltic sands? Your typical comrade didn’t make it past sweaty Crimean 
beaches. But oh, what a powerful spell the ethnographic myth cast over 
our Union’s psyche! 

Some Union, ours. To telescope rapidly; Russia, Ukraine, Byelorus- 
sia, and the newly aggregated Transcaucasus formed the initial Soviet 
fraternity, bonded by the 1922 founding treaty. Soon after, Central 
Asia supplied five fresh socialist —starts: Uzbek, Tajik, Turkmen, Ka- 
zakh, and Kyrgyz. Come the midthirties, the Transcaucasus was split 
back into Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. All the carving and add- 
ing wasn’t entirely neat, though. Samarkand, a predominately Tajik 
city, was given to Uzbekistan. The Christian Armenian population 
of Nagorno-Karabakh got trapped in Muslim Azerbaijan. The nasty 
seeds of future un-friendships were being sown across the map. By 
1940 the Soviet family reached fifteen members when the three Baltic 
republics and Moldavia were dragged in, courtesy of the treacherous 
Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. My gilded fountain’s enigmatic sixteenth 
maiden? She was the happy Karelo-Finnish Union Republic, later de- 
moted to a subrepublic of Russia. 



So there we were: the world’s largest country by far, one sixth of the 
planet’s land surface; a seeming infinity pitched within 37,000 miles 
of the border, reaching from the Atlantic to the Arctic to the Pacific 
Oceans. Fifteen full Union republics — all founded, please note, on 
ethno-national principles, from behemoth Russia (population almost 150 
million) to teensy Estonia. In addition: twenty autonomous subrepub- 
lies, dozens of administrative “national” units, 126 census-recognized 
“nationalities” (Sovietese for ethnicity) — more than fifty languages 
spoken just in the Caucasus. 

Such was the bomb of diversity that began to explode in the last 
decade of the twentieth century. 

★ ★ ★ 

Back in my childhood, though, the Party talk was all SOLIDARITY. Pro- 
found RESPECT for ALL republics. The great Soviet COMMITMENTTO 
ETHNIC EQUALIZATION! (Prolonged stormy applause.) The Bolshe- 
vik fathers created nations. Stalin for his part deported them. Under 
Brezhnev, the Union’s original vision of federalism and affirmative 
action had been revived— as institutional kitsch. The Mature Social- 
ist celebration of ethnic friendship produced a never-ending costume 
carnival of Dagestani metalwork, Buryat archery skills, Moldavian em- 
broidery. As a kid I lapped it all up. And the barrage of state-sponsored 
multiculturalism left me in a tizzy of perpetual hunger for the “cuisines 
of our nations.” 

So I acquired the second of my Moscow memories — of the two- 
storied Central Market on the Boulevard Ring, in the company once 
again of my hard-living Babushka Alla. 

The Tsentralny Market was the friendship of nations come to throb- 
bing, screaming, haggling life. Instead of golden statues, shrill Uzbek 
melon matrons wiped juice-stained fingers on striped ikat silk dresses, 
while Tajik dames hovered witch-like over banks of radishes, their heavy 
eyes kohl-rimmed, their unibrows a sinister line. I wandered the mar- 
ket aisles, ravenous, addled by scents of wild Uzbek cumin and Lithu- 
anian caraway. After the greenish rot of state stores, the produce here 


/990s.- Broken Banquets 

radiated a paradisiacal glow. Kazakhs hustled soccer ball-size crim- 
son apples (Kazakhstan’s capital was Alma-Ata: “Father of Apples”). 
Fast-talking Georgians with Stalinist mustaches whistled lewdly at my 
blond grandma and deftly formed newspaper cones for their khmeli-suneli 
spice mixes, tinted yellow with crushed marigold petals. I was particu- 
larly agog at the Latvian dairy queens. The Baltics were almost zagran - 
itsa. Polite, decked out in spotless white aprons, these lady-marvels 
filled Grandma’s empty mayonnaise jars with their thick, tangy smetana 
(sour cream). In contrast to state smetana, theirs was a quality product: 
undiluted with buttermilk-diluted-with-milk-diluted-with-water— the 
usual sequence of Soviet dairy grift. 

★ ★ ★ 

I gushed, and gushed, about the Central Market— as spectacle, as 
symbol— in the introduction to our cookbook. 

In the friendship of nations spirit, the very first recipe I tested 
was my dad’s Georgian chicken with walnut sauce (with the bird 
from my handbag on Broadway). Georgia was the Sicily of the Soviet 
imagination— a mythic land of inky wines, citrus, poets, tree-side phi- 
losophers, and operatic corruption. I followed with Armenian dolmas, 
then on to Baltic herring rolls, Moldavian feta-stuffed peppers, Byelo- 
russian mushrooms. 

Even pre-revolutionary Russian cuisine reflected the span of the 
empire. With Mikoyan’s 1939 Book of Tasty and Healthy Food, this diversity 
got Sovietized. As the decades progressed, our socialist cuisine merged 
into one pan-Eurasian melting pot. Across the eleven time zones, the 
state’s food service canon included Ayzeri lulya kehah and Tatar chehureki 
(fried pies). In Moscow you dined at restaurants named Uzbekistan or 
Minsk or Baku. And singularly Soviet hits such as salat Olivier and the 
proverbial “herring under fur coat” lent socialist kitsch to Uighur wed- 
dings and Karelian birthday parties. 

This was the story I wanted to tell in our book. 

Please to the Table came out at the end of 1990. With four hundred rec- 
ipes on 650 pages, it was heavy enough to whack someone unconscious. 



A couple of months after publication, a phone call startled John and 
me in the dead of an Australian night. (We’d moved to Melbourne, 
where my Derridarian taught art history.) It was our editor in New 
York, very excited. Please to the Table— if you please— had just won a James 
Beard Award. 

The news was doubly shocking to me. 

Because who could ever imagine a more ironic moment for a fat, lav- 
ish book celebrating the culinary friendship of our Soviet nations? It 
was the spring of 1991, and our happy Union was coming apart at the 

For a principal pair of reasons, arguably. One was Gorbachev’s di- 
sastrous handling of ethnic conflicts and secessionist passions in the 
republics. The other: the piteous mess he was making of the Soviet 
economy, which left stores barren of almost everything edible. 

★ ★ ★ 

“Ha! Better publish it as a USSR tear-off calendar!” my Moscow friends 
had joked two years earlier, while I was still researching Please to the Table. 

The first salvos were erupting from our brotherly republics. 

Down with Russian imperialism! Russian occupiers, go home! 

Thousands of pro-independence demonstrators marched under 
these sentiments in Tbilisi, Georgia, in early April 1989. The protests 
lasted five days. That summer John and I went recipe-collecting in the 
romantic, mountainous Caucasus. Reaching Tbilisi, we found the his- 
trionic Georgian capital still reeling in shock. On April 9, Moscow's 
troops had killed twenty protesters, mostly young women. Everywhere, 
amid balconies jutting from teetering houses and restaurants dug into 
cliffs around the Kura River, Tbilisians seethed with opulent rage, call- 
ing down terrible curses on Moscow. The Kremlin, meanwhile, blamed 
the massacre on local officials. 

Our hosts in town were a young architect couple, Vano and Nana, 
I’ll call them— flowers of a young liberal national intelligentsia. Their 
noble faces convulsed with hatred for Kremlin oppression. But to 
us Nana and Vano were Georgian hospitality personified. A guest 


7990S: Broken Banquets 

thereabouts is revered as a holy creature of God, to be bathed in lar- 
gesse. In our honor, kvevri, clay vessels of wine, were dug out from the 
ground. Craggy wands of churchkhella — walnuts suspended in grape 
must — were laid out in piles. Cute baby lambs had their throats cut for 
roadside picnics by the crenellated stone walls of an eleventh-century 
Byzantine monastery. We became more than friends with Nana and 
Vano — family, almost. I cheered their separatist, righteous defiance at 
the top of my lungs. 

One evening we sat under a quince tree in the countryside. We were 
full of dark, fruity wines and lavash bread rolled around opal basil and 
cheese. I felt at home enough to mention Abkhazia. Formally an au- 
tonomous republic of Georgia, Abkhazia was making its own moves to 
secede — from Georgia. We’d all been laughing and singing. Suddenly 
Nana and Vano froze. Their proud, handsome faces clenched with re- 
ignited hatred. 

“Abkhazians are monkeys!” sputtered Nana. “Monkeys down from 
the hills! They have no culture. No history.” 

“Here’s what they deserve,” snarled Vano. He crushed a bunch of 
black grapes savagely in his fist. Red juice squirted out between his el- 
egant knuckles. 

It was a preview of what lay ahead for Gorbachev’s Soyuz (Union). 

★ ★ ★ 

What lay ahead also was the furious rumbling of stomachs. 

In trying to reform the creaking, rusting wheel of the centralized 
Soviet system, Gorbachev had loosened the screws, dismantled a part 
here, a part there, and ultimately halted the wheel — with nothing to 
replace it. Typical Gorbachevian flip-flops left the economy flounder- 
ing between socialist planning and capitalist supply and demand. Defi- 
cits soared, output stagnated, the ruble plummeted. The economy was 

Starting in 1989, John and I began living part-time in Moscow and 
traveling around the USSR— this for another book now, one my Der- 
ridarian was writing himself. It was to be a dark travel picaresque about 



the imploding Imperium. We stayed during the winter months mainly, 
during his Aussie summer vacations. I loved our first arrival, after a 
twenty-hour flight from Melbourne, to Dad’s and Grandma Liza’s wel- 
come spreads, touchingly, generously, improbably conjured out of thin 
air. Our second arrival a year later was different. In December 1990, 
Babushka Liza had only diseased boiled potatoes and sauerkraut. I re- 
member the anguished embarrassment in her eyes. The “foreigners” 
were at her table, and she had only this to offer. 

“Nichevo v magazinakhl” she cried. “There’s nothing in the stores! 
Pustiye prilavki — empty counters! ” 

The socialist shortage vernacular always reached for hyper- 
bole, so I didn’t take her words literally. Counters might be empty 
of desiderata— instant coffee, bananas— but in the past you could al- 
ways count on salt, eggs, buckwheat, coarse brown vermishel. The next 
day I went to a Davydkovo store. And came face-to-face with IT. 
Nichevo— nothingness. The glaring existential emptiness of the shelves. 
No, I lie. The nichevo was framed by castles and pyramids constructed 
from “sea-cabbage salad”— canned seaweed that made you vomit on 
contact. Two bored salesgirls sat inside the barren store. One was drawl- 
ing a joke about “coupons for grade #6 dogmeat.” The joke involved fur, 
claws, and chopped wooden bits of the doghouse. The other was assem- 
bling a mini-Lenin mausoleum ziggurat from the cans. 

“A tomb for socialist edibles!” 

Her laughter echoed amid the empty counters. 

On a TV concert that New Year’s Eve, the big-haired pop diva Alla 
Pugacheva bellowed a song called “ Nyam-nyam ” (yum yum). Usually 
Pugacheva bawled about “a million scarlet roses.” Not now. 

“Open your fridge and take out 100 talon i/Add water and salt, and bon 
appetite/ Yum yum/Ha ha ha. Itee hee-hee” 

Taloni (coupons)— one of many official euphemisms for the dread 
word kartochki (ration cards). Other evasions included the alarmingly 
suave “invitation to purchase.” They only rubbed salt in the truth: for 
the first time since World War II, rationing was being inflicted on 


7 9?Os: Broken Banquets 

Homo sovieticus. What’s more, Gorbachev’s new glasnost meant you could 
now scream about it out loud. “Glasnost,” explained a Soviet mutt to an 
American mutt in a popular joke, “is when they loosen your leash, yank 
away the food bowl, and let you bark all you want.” The barking? You 
could hear it from space. 

As centralized distribution unraveled, food deliveries often de- 
toured into the twilight zone of barter and shady semifree commerce. 
Or stuff simply rotted in warehouses. There was something else, too, 
now: nasty economic un-friendship within our happy Soviet fraternity. 
Granted increased financial autonomy by Gorbachev, regional politi- 
cians and enterprises fought to keep scarce supplies for their own hun- 
gry citizenry. Georgia clung to its tangerines, Kazakhstan its vegetables. 
When Moscow — and scores of other cities — restricted food sales to lo- 
cals, the neighboring provinces halted dairy and meat deliveries into 
the capital. 

So everyone hoarded. 

My dad’s four-hundred-square-foot apartment, besides being over- 
crowded with me and my six-foot-three Brit, resembled a storeroom. 
Blissfully unemployed. Dad had all day to forage and hunt. In the tor- 
turous food supply game, my old man was a grossmeister. He stalked 
milk delivery trucks, artfully forged vodka coupons, rushed to beat 
bread stampedes. He made his own cheese, soft and bland. His ridged 
radiators resembled a Stakhanovite bread rusk-drying plant. The DI Y 
food movement of late perestroika would awe modern-day San Fran- 
ciscans. On the rickety balconies of my friends, egg-laying chickens 
squawked among three-liter jars holding lingonberries pureed with 
rationed sugar, holding cucumbers pickled with rationed salt — holding 
anything that could be brined or preserved. 1990: the year of sauerkraut. 

To shuffle as John and I did between Moscow and the West in those 
days was to inhabit a surreal split-screen. Western media gushed about 
Gorby’s charisma and feted him for the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end 
of the cold war. Meanwhile, in Moscow, the dark, frosty air swirled with 
conspiracies of doom, with intimations of apocalypse. Famine was on its 
way. Citizens were dropping dead from expired medicine in humanitar- 
ian aid packages sold by speculators. (Probably true.) “Bush’s Legs,” the 



frozen chicken parts sent by Bush pere as relief aid had surely been injected 
with AIDS. The Yanks were poisoning us, trampling our national pride 
with their diseased drumsticks. Private kiosks sold piss inside whiskey 
bottles, rat meat inside pirozhki. Ancient babushkas— those kerchiefed 
Cassandras who’d seen three waves of famines— lurked in stores crow- 
ing, “Chernobyl harvest!” at the sight of any misshapen beet. 

The histrionics of discontent possessed a carnival edge. A perverse 
glee, almost. Force-fed cheerful Rodina songs, Soviet society was now 
whooping up an anti-fairy tale of collapse. 

★ ★ ★ 

It was during such a time— when deliveries were called off for lack of 
gasoline and newspapers shrank to four pages because of lack of ink; 
when the words razval (collapse), raspad (disintegration), and razrukha 
(devastation) echoed everywhere like a sick song stuck in the collective 
brain— that the Derridarian and I journeyed around the USSR for his 
book of Soviet-twilight picaresques. 

Picture sardine cans on ice: rickety Zhiguli cars were our means of 
transport, usually on frozen roads. Lacking official Intourist permits, 
we couldn’t legally stay at hotels, so we depended on the kindness of 
strangers— friends of friends of friends who passed us along like relay 
batons in a Soviet hospitality race. Between summer 1989 (the Cauca- 
sus) and December 1991 (the Caucasus again) we must have clocked 
10,000 miles, give or take another endless detour. We roamed Central 
Asia, jounced through obscure Volga regions where some old folk still 
practiced shamanism and swilled fermented mare’s milk. We rambled 
the periphery of boundless Ukraine and the charmed mini-kremlins of 
the Golden Ring around Moscow. 

HUNTERS IN THE WINTER! appealed a sign in the gauzy Ukrai- 

Our first driver was Seryoga, my cousin Dasha’s blond wispy hus- 
band, who’d fought in the Afghan war. 

“So we’re near Kabul,” went a typical Seryoga road tale. “So this 


J 990 S: Broken Banquets 

frigging muezzin’s not letting us sleep. So my pal Sashka takes out his 
Kalashnikov. BAM! Muezzin’s quiet. Forever.” 

Seryoga taught me several crucial survival skills of the road. How 
to spray Mace, for instance, which we practiced on his grandmother’s 
pig. Also bribery. For this you positioned an American five baks note 
so that its edge stuck out of a pack of American Marlboros, which you 
slid across the counter with a wink as you cooed: “I’d be obliged, very 
obliged.” The bribing of GAI (traffic police) Seryoga handled himself. 
Not always ably. On one particularly grim stretch of Kazan-Moscow 
highway we were stopped and fined “tventi baks” exactly twenty-two 
times. It was the GAI boys’ version of a relay. 

The dizzying landscape diversity of our multicultural Rodina cel- 
ebrated in poem, novel, and song? It was now obliterated by winter, 
dissolved in exhaust fumes, brown compressed snow, the hopeless flat- 
tening light. 

Our departures from Dad’s crammed Moscow quarters . . . Up in 
the five a.m. blackness to make the most of the scant daylight ahead. My 
dad in the kitchen in his baggy blue track pants, packing our plastic bags 
with his radiator-dried rusks. Broth in his Chinese aluminum thermos; 
a coiled immersion heater for tea. Rationed sugar cubes. Twelve skinny 
lengths of salami from the hard-currency store to last the trip. We em- 
brace. Sit for exactly one minute in silence— a superstitious Russian de- 
parture rite. 

Our arrivals . . . Whether in Hanseatic Tallinn or Orientalist 
Tashkent, the potholed socialist road always led to an anonymous Lego 
sprawl of stained concrete blocks — five, nine, thirteen stories — in iden- 
tical housing developments on identical streets. 

“Grazhdanka (citizen)!” you plead, exhausted, desperate, starving. 
“We’re looking for Union Street, House five, structure seventeen B, 
fraction two-six.” 

“Chavo — WHA?” barks the grazhdanka. “This is Trade Union Street. 
Union Street is ...” A vague motion somewhere into snowy Soviet 

No map, no public phone without the receiver torn out. No idea if 



your friends-of-friends hosts are still awaiting you with their weak tea 
and their sauerkraut. An hour slogs by, another. Finally the address is 
located; you stand by the sardine can on wheels in shivering solidarity, 
a half-petrified icicle, as Seryoga dismantles the Zhiguli for the night 
so it won’t be “undressed.” Off come the spare tire, the plastic canisters 
of extra gas, the mirrors, the knobs. The pathetic moron who relaxes 
his vigilance for even one night? He buys his own windshield wip- 
ers at a car-parts flea market, as we did the next day. I think Tula was 
where this road lesson occurred. Tula-— proud home of the samovar and 
stamped Slavic gingerbread, where we nearly keeled over from a black 
market can of expired saira fish. Or was it in the medieval marvel of 
Novgorod? Novgorod, which I remember not for the glorious icon of a 
golden-tressed angel with the world’s saddest twelfth-century eyes, but 
for the hostile drunks who spat at our license plates and pulled our wispy 
Afghan vet out of the car to “tear open his Moscow ass.” Novgorod, 
where I got to use Mace on actual humans. 

★ ★ ★ 

We’d stopped in Novgorod en route to the more civilized Baltic 
capitals— Estonian Tallinn, Lithuanian Vilnius, and Latvian Riga. It 
was the empty-shelves December of 1990; Gorbachev, floundering, had 
just replaced half his cabinet with hard-liners. The previous spring, the 
Baltic republics had declared their independence. To which the Krem- 
lin responded with intimidation tactics and harsh fuel sanctions. 

And yet we found the Baltic mood uplifting, even hopeful. 

In Vilnius we crashed with a sweet, plump, twenty-something 
TV producer with a halo of frizzy hair, a dusky laugh, and bound- 
less patriotism. Regina was the fresh modern face of Baltic resistance: 
earnest, cultured, convinced that now was the time to right historic 
injustices. Her five-meter kitchen chockablock with birchbark Lithu- 
anian knickknacks felt like the snug home branch of Sajudis, Lithu- 
ania’s anti-Communist liberation movement. Boho types in coarse-knit 
Nordic sweaters came and went, bearing scant edibles and the latest po- 
litical news— Gorbachev’s foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, had 


79 9 OS: Broken Banquets 

just resigned, warning about a return to dictatorship! Regina’s friends 
held hands and prayed, actually prayed for the end of Soviet oppression. 

I’d been to Vilnius when I was eight, on a movie shoot. To my 
dazzled young eyes, cozy “bourgeois” Vilnius seemed a magical port- 
hole onto the unattainable West. Particularly the local konditerai 
scented with freshly ground coffee and serving real whipped cream. 
The whipped cream drowned my sense of unease. Because, boy, the 
Lithuanians really hated us Russians. Later, Mom, ever eager to bust 
up my friendship-of-nations fantasy, explained about the forced an- 
nexations of 1939. This might have been my opening foretaste of Soviet 
dis-Union. I remember feeling terribly guilty, as if I myself had signed 
the secret protocol of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact handing the Baltics 
over to Stalin. So now I prayed along with Regina. 

With Christmas approaching, Regina got a crazy idea. Sakotis! 

Sakotis (it means “branched”) is the stupendously elaborate Lithu- 
anian cake resembling a spiky-boughed tree. Even in bountiful times 
nobody made it at home: besides fifty eggs per kilo of butter, sakotis de- 
manded to be turned on a spit while you brushed on new dripping lay- 
ers of batter. Regina was, however, a girl on a mission. If Vytautas 
Landsbergis — the soft-spoken, pedantic ex-musicologist who led the 
Sajudis movement— could defy the Godzilla that was the Soviet regime, 
she could make sakotis. Friends brought butter, eggs, and a few inches of 
brandy. We all sat in the kitchen, broiling each craggy layer of batter to 
be stacked on an improvised “tree trunk.” 

The sakotis came out strange and beautiful: a fragile, misshapen 
tower of optimism. We ate it by candlelight. Someone strummed on 
guitar; the girls chanted Lithuanian folk songs. 

“Let’s each make a wish,” Regina implored, clapping her hands. She 
seemed so euphoric. 

Three weeks later she called us in Moscow. It was January 13, long past 

“I’m at work! They’re storming us! They’re shooting — ” The con- 
nection went dead. Regina worked at the Vilnius TV tower. 



In the morning we tuned in Voice of America on Dad’s short-wave 
radio. Regina’s TV tower was under Soviet assault; tanks were rolling 
over unarmed crowds. The violence had apparently ignited the previous 
day when the Soviets occupied the main print media building. A mys- 
terious Moscow-backed force, the “National Salvation Committee,” 
claimed to have seized power. Huge numbers of Lithuanians kept vigil 
around their Parliament, defending it. Everyone sang, linking hands. 
Thirteen people were killed and hundreds injured. 

“Hello, 1968,” Dad kept muttering darkly, invoking the Soviet 
demanded a slogan at a Moscow protest rally. Russia’s liberal media, 
previously Gorby supporters, bawled in outrage— so he promptly rein- 
troduced censorship. All the while insisting he hadn’t learned about the 
bloodshed in Vilnius until the day after it happened. Was he lying, or 
had he lost control of the hard-liners? That dark new year of 1991, all 
I could think of was Regina’s cake. Smashed by tanks, spattered with 
blood. Our friendship-of-nations fantasy — where was it now? 

★ ★ ★ 

I wonder if Gorbachev phrased the question this way himself. For he 
too must have bought into our anthem’s gilded cliche of indomitable 
friendship— of the “ unbreakable Union of Soviet Republics.” What Party 
ideologue hadn’t? 

And yet from its very inception this friendly vision of a permanent 
Union contained a lurking flaw, a built-in lever for self-destruction. In 
their nation-building and affirmative-action frenzy, the twenties Bol- 
sheviks had insisted on full equality for hundreds of newly Sovietized 
ethnic minorities. So— on paper at least— the founding 1922 Union 
Treaty granted each republic the right to secede, a right maintained 
in all subsequent constitutions. Each republic possessed its own fully 
articulated government structure. Paradoxically, such nation-building 
was meant as a bridge to the eventual merging of nations into a sin- 
gle communist unity. More paradoxical was how aggressively the 


1990S: Broken Banquets 

Party-state fostered ethnic identities and diversity— in acceptable Soviet 
form — while suppressing any authentic expressions of nationalism. 

The post-Stalin leadership had generally been blind to the po- 
tential consequences of this paradox. Whatever genuine nationalist 
flare-ups occurred under Khrushchev and Brezhnev were dismissed 
as isolated holdovers of bourgeois national consciousness and quickly 
put down. The response of Gorbachev-generation Party elites to the 
national question was . . . What national question? Hadn’t Brezhnev de- 
clared such issues solved? The Soviet people were one “international 
community,” Gorbachev pontificated at a 1986 Party congress. “United 
in a unity of economic interests, ideological and political aims.” Were 
this not his real conviction — so I ask myself to this day — would he have 
risked glasnost (literally “public voicing”) and perestroika (restructur- 
ing) in the republics? 

“We never expected an upsurge of emotional and ethnic factors,” 
the supposedly sly Shevardnadze later admitted. 

Unexpectedly, the floodgates burst open. 

“Armenian-Azeri fighting escalating in Nagorno-Karabakh; Southern 
Ossetians clashing again with Georgians — twenty dead!” Our friend 
Sasha Meneev, head of the newly created “nationalities” desk at the lib- 
eral Moscow News daily, would update us breathlessly during our times 
in the capital. “The Gagauz — Christian Turkish minority in Moldavia, 
right?— seeking full republic status. Ditto Moldavia’s Slavic minority. 
Crimean Tatars demanding repatriation; Volga Tatars threatening sov- 
ereignty over oil reserves . . .” 

“Sooner or later,” one of Gorbachev’s advisers bitterly quipped, 
“someone is going to declare his apartment an independent state.” 

True to form, the mineral secretary, caught between reformers and 
hard-liners, vacillated, flipped and flopped. Tanks or talks? Repressions 
or referendums? Desperate to preserve the Union— at least as some 
species of reformed federation — Gorbachev would try them all. With- 
out success. The biggest blow would come from his largest republic, 



specifically from his arch-nemesis, Boris Yeltsin, the Russian repub- 
lic’s populist renegade head. In summer 1990 Yeltsin announced Rus- 
sia’s sovereignty (not full independence, but close). Resigning from the 
Communist Party, he roused fellow republic leaders to “take as much 
sovereignty as they could swallow.” 

Now, in the wake of the bloodshed in Vilnius, Yeltsin— true to his 
form — rushed to Estonia’s Tallinn to loudly support the breakaway 
Balts. In February 1991, another uproar. On live TV he called on the 
embattled Gorbachev to resign and transfer control to the collective 
leadership of the republics. So began Gorbachev’s annus horribilis. And 
the political war between USSR and Russia. Moscow vs. Moscow. 

Could politics get any more surreal? 

★ ★ ★ 

Nevozmozhno/neizbezhno. Inevitable/impossible. Nevozmozhno/neizbezhno . . . 

This schizophrenic refrain about the prospects of the Union’s ex- 
plosion ticked through my tired brain as John and I traversed the em- 
pire in its last months — days? hours? years?— in 1990 and 1991. 

What would happen? Ethnicities commandeered into Soviet kin- 
ship by Bolshevik whims — would they go on slaughtering each other 
inside convoluted borders drawn up by early Soviet cartographers? Or 
would a tidal wave of Moscow tanks enforce happiness in the big Soviet 

From one day to the next we couldn’t imagine — any more than we 
knew whether at any particular nightfall we’d face rancid sauerkraut 
or be treated to a pathos-drenched feast by a clan of blood-baying na- 
tionalists. A world was coming unstitched. We felt helpless, bewildered, 
our sardine can on wheels caught up in history’s centrifuge. And how 
different the foods of our fraternal republics tasted to me. The dishes 
I revered from my childhood’s garish seventies recipe postcard collec- 
tions on “cuisines of our nations” now conjured not a friendship buf- 
fet but a witches’ brew of resentments freshly stirred up by glasnost. 
Each family of the Soviet fraternity was unhappy after its own fashion. 
Each stop we made revealed the particular flavor of some tiny nation’s 


7990S: Broken Banquets 

past tragedy, the historical roots of the conflicts engulfing the empire. 
How little 1 , the award-winning cookbook author, really knew about our 
Union of cuisines. 

★ ★ ★ 

Snapshot from Samarkand, winter of 1991. Everyone here fights over 
palov (meat pilaf) , the Central Asian monodish. The deeper issue? Stun- 
ning Timurid-dynasty Samarkand, the tourist pride of Turkic-speaking 
Soviet Uzbekistan with its blue-tiled fifteenth-century mosques, is in 
fact a city populated mostly by Farsi-speaking Tajiks. 

Pre-revolution this region was a bilingual khanate. People inter- 
married, ate the same pilaf, and called themselves Sarts. Unlike the 
Lithuanians (theirs an actual, pre-Soviet country) neither the Tajiks 
nor Uzbeks ever had anything resembling a separate national con- 
sciousness. Not until Stalin, fearing a pan-Turkic insurgence in the late 
1920s, split Central Asia (then known as Turkestan) into five Union 
republics. Obsessive Bolshevik social engineering supplied each with a 
semifabricated history, a newly codified written language, and freshly 
minted ethno-identity. Nifty nationhood package aside, Tajikistan got 
stuck with some scrappy mountains; Uzbekistan drew the gorgeous Tajik 
cultural centers of Samarkand and Bukhara. Uzbekistan also scored 
Amir Timur — a.k.a. Tamerlane the warrior king — who was designated 
an Uzbek national hero. Funny, since Timur was actually a Mongol who 
fought against the Uzbeks. 

Along came glasnost, and old scores long muzzled by the Kremlins 
heavy centralized hand were back, in full fury. 

“Uzbek pilaf! Vile and greasy!” raged an elderly Tajik nationalist 
professor when we paid a call on him at his boxy low-rise apartment. 
The Tajik pilaf on his table — “Delicate! Reflective of our ancient Per- 
sian heritage” — had been assembled into a cumin-scented mound by his 
gorgeous young unibrowed wife. Talking to the local Uzbek minority, 
we learned, of course, that Tajik pilaf was pathetic: “Tasteless! Bland!” 
These declarations were completely bewildering, because the Tajik and 
Uzbek pilafs of Samarkand tasted identical. 



Our hosts in Samarkand were an aged Bukharan-Jewish couple, 
Rina and Abram. “Interesno.” Abram squinted from his third-party per- 
spective. “Tajiks here listed themselves as Uzbeks on their passports 
when it helped with their careers. Now suddenly they remember their 

Rina and Abram had their own grief. “When they finish killing each 
other,” hissed Rina, “they’ll turn on us Jews.” Rina sat by her mulberry 
tree weeping tears into a bowl of tannic green tea. She and Abram had 
applied for an exit visa to Israel. “But how to leave this behind,” lamented 
Rina, gesturing at their palatial private house with a fully cemented 
backyard (a proud Bukharan-Jewish-Soviet tradition). 

“Oi vai, oi vai,” cried Abram from the back door. “Tajiks, Uzbeks, 
Jews under Brezhnev we all lived as one muhallah (community/neigh- 
borhood). Gorbachev bud’ on proklyat (be damned)!” 

Spectacular wails and ululations awoke us our last Samarkand 
morning. The wailers were our hosts. Storming into our bedroom, they 
began frantically slashing the mattress on which we still lay. “OI OI OI!” 
The decibels of their shock nearly cracked the palatial walls painted 
with crude rococo landscapes. 

“VAI VAI VAI!” resounded the entire neighborhood. 

Soviet tanks? I gasped. A Jewish pogrom? 

“WORSE!” Rina screamed. 

The morning’s radio had just announced the government’s latest 
economic shock measure. All fifty- and hundred-ruble banknotes were 
to be withdrawn from use. Citizens were given three days only to ex- 
change their old bills— maximum amount, one thousand rubles. Some 
forty dollars at black market rates. In catastrophic silence we sipped our 
green tea as Rina and Abram slashed fake-rococo chairs and striped 
cushions. Their entire life savings fluttered around the rooms in a 
morning breeze. Most of it in banned fifties and hundreds. 

Just another day on the road, 1991. On the crumbling Imperium’s 


1990S: Broken Banquets 

Snapshot from Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital, later that same winter. 
At the Alay Bazaar the January sun angled across mottled-green Ko- 
kand melons. Men in skullcaps thronged around carts piled high with 
indented non flatbreads the size and shape of soup bowls. The biggest 
trade this season? Little red horoscope booklets. The future. The fu- 
ture. What does the future hold? 

At the bazaar I gravitated again and again to the rows of Korean 
ladies hawking their prodigious pickles: shredded carrots laced with 
garlic and coriander; fiery cabbage kimchi they called chim-che. The Ko- 
reans were socialist Central Asia’s model farmers. At their prosperous, 
orderly kolkhozes with names like Politotdel (Political Department) 
they grew wonder onions and overfulfilled every Five-Year Plan by 
500 percent. Koreans also farmed most of the rice for the pilaf Uzbeks 
and Tajiks argued about. But behind the Koreans’ golden success story 
lurked another sort of tale . . . 

After we’d bought several rounds of her pickles, Shura Tan, in her 
late sixties, told us her story. She spoke in halting Russian dotted with 
Uzbek words. When she got nervous she flattened her shredded carrots 
with a strangely shaped ladle and meticulously reassembled them into 
perfectly triangular mounds. 

Like most Soviet Koreans of her generation, Shura was born in the 
Russian Far East. The diaspora had been there since the 1860s, swell- 
ing after refugees from the 1910 Japanese invasion of Korea crossed 
over to the future USSR. The Korean comrades grew rice and fished; 
the Bolsheviks gave them Korean-language schools, theaters, clubs. 
“We Koreans were happy,” said Shura. 

Then, in the fall of 1937, men in uniforms came to their kolkhoz. 
The Koreans were given three days to pack. Panic swept through their 
villages. Where were they being taken? Wrenched by despair, Shura’s 
mother assembled a huge sack of rice and wrapped in cloth a handful of 
earth for her garden plot. “Why take the earth?” protested the family. 
Shura’s mother took it all the same. It was her earth. 

The Koreans were told to bring food for a week, but the journey 
lasted a month, maybe longer. Packed into sealed cattle cars, the pan- 
icked deportees traveled almost four thousand miles west across frigid 



Siberia. Old people and babies died from hunger and illness, their bod- 
ies dumped from the moving train. All the way Shura wept. She was 
then a small child. 

At last the train stopped. As far as the eye could see were reeds, 
mud, swamps— the endless plains of Central Asia. The Koreans began 
building mud huts, sometimes without window or doors 

“Scorpions fell on my bed from our walls,” Shura recalled, raking 
her carrots. “And black snakes as long as this”— she opened her arms 
wide. But the worst killer was the muddy, diseased swamp water — the 
only drinking water available. That’s when Shura’s mother remembered 
her earth. She filtered the poisoned water through it. 

“And that’s what saved us,” said Shura. “The earth.” 

Koreans became the first Soviet ethnicity to be deported by Stalin 
in its entirety. More than 180,000 strong, down to the last child. Ac- 
cusation : potential pro-Japanese espionage during Soviet-Japanese ten- 
sions over Manchuria, even though most Koreans hated Japan. Another 
motive for their deportation: the hard-toiling Koreans could farm the 
barren Central Asian steppes. 

Between 1937 and 1944 these steppes served as Stalin’s dumping 
ground for scores of other, smaller ethnicities he charged with treason. 
Sealed cattle cars— “crematoria on wheels”— ferried in Chechens, In- 
gushi, Karachai, Kalmyks, and Balkars. Also Crimean Tatars, Volga 
Germans, Ingrian Finns, Kurds, Poles from the Ukraine. The Kore- 
ans assimilated and stayed. Others, like the Chechens and the Ingushi, 
returned to their Northern Caucasus homeland under Khrushchev’s 
Thaw, only to find their houses occupied by Russians and neighbor- 
ing ethnic minorities, and the stone tombs of their ancestors employed 
as construction material. Mountain nations venerate their ancestors. 
The insults were never forgiven. Gorbachev’s glasnost reawakened the 

Nation builder and nation destroyer— simultaneously— is how 
the historian Terry Martin describes the Soviet State. As whole eth- 
nic populations drew Stalin’s black marks, the officious encomiums to 
Union minorities rang out undiminished. Propaganda reels after the 
Great Patriotic War showed happy Korean collective farmers at their 



7990S: Broken Banquets 

glorious socialist toil. There were even well-financed Korean theater 
productions. A Korean-language newspaper— Lenin Kichi (Lenin’s 
Banner) — was imposed on every Korean kolkhoz, representing yet an- 
other socialist irony. 

Deprived of Korean schooling by Stalin, the generation of Shura the 
pickle maker could no longer read h angul script. 

“I know Russian, a little Uzbek,” sighed Shura. “Korean? Nyet. No 
language — no homeland.” She sighed again. “But at least we have this.” 
She pointed down to her pickles. After mixing some kachi red chile paste 
into a tangy salad of cabbage and peppers, she scooped some into my 
hand. The heat of her chiles left my face numb. 

★ ★ ★ 

Update: Moscow, August 19, 1991. Tanks rumble up the bombastic 
thrust of Kutuzov Prospect. Soviet TV plays Swan Lake . . . over and 
over. Party hard-liners announce control of the government. Gorba- 
chev? Under house arrest at his Crimean dacha. Officially the “state 
of his health” doesn’t permit him to continue as president. The 
right-winger vice president Comrade Yanaev is taking over. Comrade 
Yanaev’s hands tremble visibly at his press conference. Not quite sober 
for history’s call. 

Hello, Avgustovsky putsch — the August coup. 

We stare at our television in a seaside suburb of Melbourne, where 
Mom happens to be visiting me and John from New York. 

“Vsyo, eto vsyo,” Mom is crying. “This is the end!” 

I keep dialing my father in Moscow. And getting through. 

“Da, putsch, putsch . . Dad giggles sardonically. 

“Ma, Ma,” I keep reasoning, nine thousand miles away from the 
scenes. “If things were that bad they’d have cut the international phone 

They’d have cut Yeltsin’s phone too. Instead, there he is in all his 
bearish populism, defiant atop a tank outside the White House, the 
Russian parliament building. In popular elections that June he’d be- 
come Russia’s first freely elected leader in a thousand years. Now he rallies 



Muscovites to resist the takeover. Crowds cheer him on. Citizens weep 
and complain openly for imperialist cameras. The plotters’ script has 
been botched: Is this any way to run a putsch > 

Over the next two days the coup goes phhht, and in such a pratfall 
style that to this day Russian conspiracy theorists question what really 
happened. Things move at shocking speed after this. Yeltsin bans the 
Communist Party. More republics head for the exit. Gorbachev clings 
on in this crumbling world, still devoutly for the Union, even in its now 
hobbled form. The friendship of nations: no longer only a cherished 
ideological trope for Comrade Gorbachev. Without it he’s out of a job. 

“I’m not going to just float like a lump of shit in an ice hole,” he in- 
forms Yeltsin in December, after 90 percent of Ukrainians icily vote to 
secede from his Union. 

★ ★ ★ 

That December of 1991 rny Derridarian and I returned for our final 
road trip— south via Ukraine to the rebellious Georgian subrepublic 
of Abkhazia, wedged in between Georgia and the southern border of 
Russia. What with the chaos and gasoline shortage, nobody wanted to 
drive us. Finally we found Yura, a thirty-something geology professor 
with a Christ-like ginger beard. “I refuse to give bribes — out of princi- 
ple,” he informed us quietly. This was bad news. On the plus side: his 
rattletrap Zhiguli operated on both gas and propane, slightly increas- 
ing our chances of actual motion. The propane stank up the car with 
a rotten-egg smell. On the road Yura pensively cracked pine nuts with 
his big yellow teeth; his cassette tape whined with semiunderground 
sixties songs about taiga forests and campfires. Geologists— they were 
their own subculture. 

Yura’s Zhiguli was a metaphor for the disintegrating state of our 
Soyuz. Innocent tourist side jaunts metastasized into days-long quests 
for accelerator components. Every fill-her-up of black market gas cost 
five monthly salaries. Meantime all around us they were renaming the 
landscape. Kharkov in Ukraine was no more; it was Kharkiv now, in 
Ukrainian. Lenin and Marx streets clanged into dustbins. 



79 9 0s: Broken Banquets 

By the time we sputtered into Abkhazia’s civil-war-torn Black Sea 
capital of Sukhumi, I no longer knew whom to side with in ethnic con- 
flicts, whom to trust. I now put my faith in anyone who put out a hot 
meal. I trusted and loved the wiry young Abkhazian driver lent to us 
by the local writers’ union to help fix our sardine can on wheels. The 
kid proudly took us to his parents’ village house for a meal. We ate bit- 
terish, gamy wild duck shot that morning — smothered in a thick, toma- 
toey, fiery sauce. It might have been the most memorable dish of my life. 
Then the excellent youngster stole Yura’s last gas canister. 

To Sukhumi we carried an introduction from our Moscow acquain- 
tance Fazil Iskander, the greatest living Abkhazian writer. During an 
electrical blackout we called at the darkened flat of Alexei Gogua, chief 
of the Abkhazian Writers Union. We found the gray-haired Gogua 
writing in his pajama pants by a flickering candle. What terrible straits 
we’d landed him in! Abkhaz hospitality demanded a resplendent wel- 
come. We were visiting foreign writers — sent by Fazil, the Abkhaz Mark 
Twain. But Sukhumi’s infrastructure was shattered. Which is how a 
Zhiguli convoy of separatist culturati accompanied us to the well-lit 
country house of a prominent winemaker. 

Shortly before seven p.m. I slipped out to the kitchen. 

“Due to the situation which has evolved . . ” 

The inevitable/impossible was finally happening. At seven p.m. on 
Christmas Day, 1991, Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev was giving his 
resignation speech. 

The situation had developed further and fatally for him. Several 
weeks earlier, his thorn-in-the-side Yeltsin had secretly met leaders of 
Ukraine and Byelorussia at Brezhnev’s former hunting lodge in a Bye- 
lorussian forest. The troika’s advisers and lawyers cooked up a devilish 
plan: As founding members of the 1922 Union Treaty, the three repub- 
lics had the power to annul it— to simply dissolve the USSR! In its place they 
formed the Commonwealth of Independent States. Byelorussian herbal 
vodka lubricated the signing. Before bothering to inform Gorbachev, 
Yeltsin telephoned the news to George FI. W. Bush. (“Dear George,” 
he addressed him now.) At a subsequent meeting in Kazakhstan, eight 
more republics went ex-Union. Clearly Gorbachev was finished. 



And yet his TV announcement caught me by total surprise, there 
with my uneaten spoonful of Abkhazian corn mush. Reading from a 
paper, often awkwardly, the last leader of Sovetsky Soyuz spoke for ten 
minutes. He lauded his own democratic reforms. Admitted mistakes. 
Took credit for the elimination of a totalitarian system and for “newly 
acquired spiritual and political freedom.” About the new freedom and 
such he wasn’t fabulizing exactly, but the ladies around me gently waved 
him off. His phrases rang meaningless, false— simply because after all 
his flip-flopping, who’d ever believe him? 

The USSR’s dying minutes still replay in my mind in dazed, elegiac 
slow motion. 

I recall the exact words that Gorbachev mangled in his crass provin- 
cial accent (so at odds with his suave international image). I taste the 
salty cheese in the corn mush, inhale the kitchen’s garlicky pungencies; I 
hear the thudding splat of a pomegranate heavy with seeds that — another 
metaphor for the Imperium?— fell on the kitchen floor and cracked open. 

The Abkhaz women had been watching impassively for the most 
part, chins propped in hands. But as the resignee thanked his support- 
ers and wished his countrymen best, the lady of the house whispered: 

“Zhalko, a vse-taki zhalko.” 

“Zhalko," echoed the others: “A shame, a shame, in the end.” 

Zhalko,’ I murmured along, not sure what we were wistful about. 
The sudden humanity of a tone-deaf reformer— hero abroad, villain at 
home? The finis, the official, irrevocable curtain falling on our fairy-tale 
communal he, the utopian social experiment for which millions of lives 
had been brutally sacrificed— now signing off in the most undramatic 
fashion imaginable? Empires! They weren't supposed to gurgle away in 
ten badly colorized minutes. The locomotive carrying citizens into a 
brighter tomorrow wasn’t meant to just run out of gas and die in the 
middle of nowhere, like one more woebegone Zhiguli. 

As Gorbachev later wrote in his memoirs, he got no farewell cer- 
emony, no phone calls from presidents of former Soviet republics. They 
didn’t believe in the friendship of nations. Were there any murmurs of 
“a shame” from them at the end? 

When the speech was over, the blazing red Soviet banner was 


7990s: Broken Banquets 

lowered for the very last time in history, and a peppy Russian tricolor 
rose in its place. 

A new day in a new state, said the announcer, and the TV reverted to reg- 
ular programming. A cartoon, I think it was, or maybe a puppet show. 

I know you’ll wonder how it felt to wake up next day in a new state. Only 
I didn’t wake up — not till two whole days later. My brain pounded vio- 
lently against my temples. My blurred vision registered white-coated 
people bending over me with expressions of saccharine Soviet con- 
cern. “How is our golovka, our little head?” they cooed, waving smelling 
salts under my nose. Where was I? Ah, yes . . . the only place in darkened 
Sukhumi with its own electrical generator. The Sanatorium of the Rus- 
sian Armed Forces, where we’d been lodged on arrival by the hospitable 
Abkhazian writers. After the USSR ended on TV there’d been toasts, 
many toasts- flowery prodigies of Caucasian eloquence laboriously 
translated from Abkhaz to Russian to English (for the sake of the Der- 
ridarian, who was now sprawled beside me, ghostly pale and grunting). 
Dimly I recalled the ritualistic pouring of homemade Izabella wine 
onto the roof of our decrepit sardine can around four a.m. The equally 
ritualistic guzzling down of a farewell kantsi, a horn filled with 1.5 liters 
of the same such Izabella. Gogua, the elderly writer-in-chief, collapsing 
softly into the arms of his secretary. 

“Golovka, the little head, how is it?” pressed the white-coated people. 

The golovka pounded and hammered and throbbed. Passed out from 
epic alcohol poisoning. That’s how, since you asked, I greeted the dawn 
of a new historical era. Ah, Izabella. 

Ah, dawn; historical hangover dawn . . . 

The Zhiguli’s engine finally expired somewhere near Kiev, and in 
exchange for a bottle, a GAZ truck towed Yura the Christ-like geologist 
eight hundred miles to Moscow. John and I took the overnight train 
with its red-carpeted corridor. Back in Melbourne again, where it was 
summer, we sat on a green hill leaning on our two massive suitcases, 



homeless and miserable— the sublet we’d arranged had fallen through. 
Soon I left my Derridarian in Australia and returned to New York. Our 
relationship sank under the strain of the USSR’s dying days— though 
it took us a few more long-distance years (he moved to California) to 
break up officially. His travel book never came out. 

★ ★ ★ 

Between 1992 and 1999, Yeltsin’s dermokratiya (crapocracy) sent Rus- 
sia into free-market shock. Rampaging inflation, pitiful salaries 
unpaid— the previous hungry years of sauerkraut were remembered 
as plentiful. Overnight, a giant sleazy fire sale of national resources 
spawned oligarchs out of former apparatchiks and gangsters. Lesser 
beings lost everything: identity, pride, savings, Crimean beaches, and 
the comforting rhetoric of imperialist prestige and power. Not to men- 
tion the Soviet state’s social benefits. What’s more, Boris “Champion of 
Sovereignty” Yeltsin started a war to stop Chechnya from seceding, a 
conflict with horrors that fester to this day. 

In 2000 an obscure midget with a boring KGB past was elected 
post-Union Russia’s second president and started flexing his muscles. 
Authoritarian symbols and rhetoric were revived. Among them, the 
Soviet national anthem— the words “Russia-our sacred power” sub- 
stituted for “unbreakable Union of Soviet Republics.” Under Putin’s 
petrodollar kleptocracy, narcissistic consumerism began to bloom and 
boom. Money and glamour— Russified as glamur — swaggered in as the 
new state ideology (fretfully decried by the intelligentsia). These days 
Muscovites still order Georgian kharcho soup and Ukrainian vareniki 
dumplings at cute “ethnic” restaurants. But mostly they enjoy carpaccio 
and sushi— at oligarch prices. 

★ ★ ★ 

Recently, cleaning my office in Queens, I unearthed a box of recipe 
postcards from the seventies. Fifteen sets, each celebrating a Soviet 


1990s: Broken Banquets 

republic’s cuisine. Arranging them slowly on my dining table, I recalled 
the rain-washed autumn day four decades before when I scored these 
defitsit treasures at the big Dom Knigi bookstore and triumphantly car- 
ried them home. Poring now over the faded Technicolor close-ups of 
Moscow-designated “national dishes,” I still twinged at their faintly 
fragrant Orientalist spell, their enticements to wanderlust. There was 
“Azerbaijani” sturgeon salad, inexplicably smothered in Slavic sour 
cream, pictured against socialist oil derricks rising from the blue Cas- 
pian Sea. Faux “Kyrgyz” cakes, exotically called “Karagat” though fea- 
turing black currants in no way native to arid Kyrgyzstan. Umpteen 
ethnic variations on salat Olivier and kotleti. National in form, socialist 
in flavor, exactly as the Party prescribed. 

Why was it, then? Why, of all the totalitarian myths, had the gilded 
fairy tale of the friendship of nations stayed so deeply, so intimately 
lodged in my psyche? 

Fearing the answer might expose my inner Soviet imperialist, 1 quit 
speculating. Instead 1 decided to throw a birthday dinner for Mom 
featuring the real dishes of our erstwhile republics. As celebration, as 

For a solid week I pulverized walnuts for Georgian chicken satsivi, 
folded grape leaves around scented Armenian lamb, fried pork crackling 
for my bonafide Ukrainian borscht. Proudly I set these out on Mom’s 
birthday table along with Moldovan feta strudels and abysta, that bland 
Abkhazian corn mush of my farewell to the USSR. For dessert, a dense 
Lithuanian honey cake. And in tribute to the toasts at the dissolution of 
the Union Treaty, I even steeped a Byelorussian herbal vodka. 

Mom was touched almost to tears by my handiwork. But she just 
couldn’t help being herself. 

“Za druzhbu narodov — To the friendship of nations!” She offered the 
dog-eared toast with a grin so sarcastic, it practically withered my edible 
panorama of the republics. 

“Imagine!” she exclaimed to her guests. “The daughter I raised on 
Tolstoy and Beethoven — she went gaga over the stupid gilded fountain 
at VDNKh!” 



I was a little hurt by her words, I have to admit. 

That Friendship of Nations fountain, by the way, has been freshly 
regilded in Moscow. Kids with their grandmas still circle around it. 
“Babushka, Babushka, tell us what it was like to live in the USSR?” the 
kids want to know. 

“Well, once upon a time . . begin the babushkas. 





We landed in Moscow on Good Friday, 2011 — my mom, Barry, and I. 

For the very first time ever, relatives weren’t there to embrace us at 
the airport. They still loved us, they claimed, but life now was different. 
Busier. Terrible airport traffic. 

Earlier that afternoon we’d been devouring an epic garden lunch 
under late-April cherry trees in Odessa. The city of my mother’s 
birth, that gaudy, piratical Soviet port of my childhood seaside vaca- 
tions, had been transformed into a charming, smiley, semiglobalized 
city in very foreign Ukraine. We’d stopped over in Odessa to do family 
research — only to discover that second cousin Gleb, our closest local 
relative, had a broken nose, a prison past, and complete alcoholic am- 
nesia. So we researched Odessa’s garlicky cooking instead, shopping 
up a storm at the boisterous Privoz market. Our suitcases bulged with 
wholesome Ukrainian lard, folkloric garlic-studded kolbasa, and but- 
tery smoked kambala flatfish. 

None of this was presents for family. A month in the world’s fourth 
most expensive metropolis loomed ahead of us. We anxious American 
paupers stocked up on cheap, delicious Odessa edibles as if preparing 
for combat. Putin’s Moscow: a battleground, not for the fainthearted 
and shallow-pocketed. 

I n the new millennium our visits to Moscow had been infrequent and 
brief. Mother and I stayed away altogether from 1991 to 2001, missing 



out on the booze-soaked get-rich-or-have-your-brains-blown-out an- 
archy of the Yeltsin years. Not by design; it just happened. My grand- 
parents and Uncle Sashka were dead; our surviving relatives came to 
visit in New York. As for rodina, we no longer mentally spelled it with a 
capital R. From the irony, dread, and tangle of signifiers sprouting from 
the dead morass of Sovietese, the word had shrunk to a de-ideologized, 
neutered noun, denoting, simply, where you were born. I felt more at 
home elsewhere, traveling and eating for a living. I’d bought an apart- 
ment in Istanbul with a Bosporus view and had devoted my latest cook- 
book to frenetically hospitable Spain, after writing about the tastes of 
Latin America and the Pacific Rim. 


“Dubai with Pushkin statues,” Barry, my boyfriend, pronounced it 
on our previous visit. 

It was already late evening on this Good Friday when we settled finally 
into our rented “highrise” flat. 

“Flighrise,” pronounced khi-rize in Russian, was the deluxe tag 
that Moscow4Rent, the rental agency, had concocted for our boxy 
two-bedroom apartment on Novy Arbat Avenue. The view made our 
jaws drop. From the twenty-second-floor windows we beheld i) Hotel 
Ukraine, a showpiece of Stalinist neo-Gothic gigantomania; 2) Novy 
Arbat Avenue, Khrushchev’s swashbuckling slap at such feats of Stalin- 
ist ornamentalism; 3) the bulky Parliament White House, site of the 
1991 attempted putsch that triggered the fall of the empire. Even at night 
the endless soaring construction cranes of Putin’s gangster-corporate 
capitalism were still at it. Moscow’s rapacious real estate schemes never 

The khi-rize cost a small fortune. But leaning transfixed on a win- 
dowsill I gazed at the wide street below in breathless exhilaration at a 
long-ago childhood fantasy finally realized. 

I had arrived! 

In the early sixties bulldozers crushed a swath through crooked. 


Twenty-first Century: Putin on the Ritz 

archaic Old Arbat lanes, gouging out this massive, ruler-straight avenue 
then known as Kalinin Prospect. Strolling the renamed Novy Arbat of 
today, a foreigner might only see sleek BMWs cutting off sooty rheu- 
matic city buses on a choked six-lane thoroughfare, with late-modernist 
towers hulking alongside, grubby-gray but with a certain brutalist je ne 
sais quoi. This foreigner might smirk at the tacky red-lettered globe on 
the tawdry Arbat center, frown at the ersatz steakhouses and yakitori 
joints sprawling westward and east. 

Me? From the window I saw the boulevard of my young dreams. 

I saw that now-tacky globe — year 1972. Magically blue it glowed in- 
side its original wraparound logo: AEROFLOT: SPEED AND COMFORT. 
Rotating and flashing the locations of different mysterious foreign 
countries, it was a wonder cabinet of the latest Japanese electronics in 
Moscow. Below it shoppers in furry hats promenaded along Moscow’s 
widest sidewalk, past Vesna department store, in the gleaming win- 
dows of which checkered Polish coats preened, never actually for sale 
inside. Black Volgas and Chaikas glided by imperiously in the two lanes 
reserved for officials. Some lucky Muscovites toted dejxtsit cornflakes 
boxes from the swishy, American-style self-service Novoarbatsky su- 
permarket. I saw my young self there too, gaping up at the giant Times 
Square— style screen where cartoons and bright propaganda reels blazed. 
Kalinin Prospect was my mirage of the West, my vision of technology’s 
march, my crystal ramp into the future. My Ginza and Broadway and 
Champs-Elysees packed into one. 

As for our own khi-rize, it was one of four twenty-six-story prefab- 
concrete residential skyscrapers completed in 1968, only two years be- 
fore I moved to an Old Arbat lane nearby. Strictly allocated to the no- 
menklatura, these towers fascinated me then with their sheer newness 
and geometricity. They were my own private, inaccessible residential 
utopia. I wanted to spend my life here at the very apex of late-sixties So- 
viet modernity— right here at the very spot where now in 2011 my mom is 
wrestling with the malfunctioning electric teakettle. 

Memory likes its cruel tricks with the objects of our nostalgic yearn- 
ings. They usually turn out to be smaller, dishearteningly trite, when 



finally reencountered in real life. How miraculous then, I thought to 
myself, that not even thirty-plus years and a passport full of visa stamps 
could shrink the stature of ugly Kalinin Prospect. 

Before collapsing onto our khi-rize Ikea beds, we snacked at our Ikea 
kitchen table on the sausage and pepper vodka we’d hauled with us 
from Ukraine. Mom and Barry too tired, I think, to parse the bounty 
of ironies, with the giant wedding cake of Stalin’s Hotel Ukraine blaz- 
ing floodlit across the Moscow River. 

Next morning we left Mom with her telephone troika— global digi- 
tal, local land line, Russian cell— and headed off for a nostalgic stroll 
along Boulevard Ring, the route I used to take with Grandmother 
Alla. The day was mid-spring-like and stunning. The sky gleamed ce- 
rulean blue, and in the suddenly balmy air the tulips flashed and pansies 
winked from their beds. Anyutini glazki (Anyuta’s eyes— my eyes) is Rus- 
sian for pansies, and I love them for it. My heart sang. The boulevard 
flora inspired a Nabokovian nostalgia for that “hospitable remorseful 
racemosa-blossoming Russia.” 

As for the fauna . . . 

“Got a car for my birthday,” a six-year-old in an Abercrombie hoodie 
was telling his pal. “Not a TOY, kretin. A car. With a chauffeur.” 

On Nikitsky Boulevard, ladies young and old, belles and betes, 
hobbled along on sadistic ten-inch heels, like throngs of exotic giraffes. 
“Look!” whispered Barry, gawking at a blonde in hot pants and ver- 
tiginous pink platform-stilettos. Pink satin ribbons fluttered from her 
absurdly teetering ankles. 

But it wasn’t her footwear attracting all the attention. 

The Muscovite gaze, which blatantly sizes you up and down, assess- 
ing your clothes and accessories, piercing you with disdain or caressing 
you and yours with haughty approval— that collective gaze now fixed on 
my toes. They were bare. For our sentimental walk I’d worn sensible 
Adidas flip-flops, and in doing so had violated some code of Moscow 
propriety. Here in my old neighborhood, I suddenly felt self-conscious 
and foreign, as if trapped inside a “naked in public” anxiety dream. 


Twenty-first Century: Putin on the Qitz 

My bare toes were glared at inside some of the world’s most expen- 
sive real estate: at the tea shop (ten dollars an ounce of “white needle” 
Fujian leaves), at the bakery (ten dollars a wedge of tiramisu), at the 
florist (ten dollars a rosebud). These fine merchants all embodied the 
most cherished post-Soviet attributes: eleet and ekskluziv. 

We fled off the boulevards onto Tverskaya Street, ducking into the 
more populist Contemporary Russian History Museum. 

“Woman!” thundered a custodial babushka. “Your toes will fall off 
from frostbite!” Outside it was well into the seventies. But instead of 
defending my flip-flops, I joined a debate between the frostbiter and a 
mothy spinster in charge of the room with the glamorized diorama of a 
Soviet communal apartment kitchen (!). 

Who was Russia’s best-ever ruler? bickered the babushkas. The 
alarmist said Brezhnev: “Eighteen whole years of calm and prosperity!” 
The moth declared that she cried just thinking of what Bolsheviks did 
to poor, poor czar Nicholas II— and, in the same breath, pronounced 
Stalin the best-ever leader. “Bless him for leading Russia to victory.” 

“What about ... er ... all the people he killed?” I put in, uninvited. 

The Stalinist waved me off philosophically. “Cut a forest and splin- 
ters will fly.” It’s a popular expression among Stalin apologists. We left 
the two of them grunting in agreement with each other (and most other 
Russians) about the country’s worst-ever leader — Gorbachev!— and 
once more braved the boulevards. 

“Your shlyopki (flip-flops)!” yelled an orange-haired hippo from a 
bench. “ People spit— and worse! — on the streets! Want a leg amputated?” 

“But Moscow these days seems so clean” I cravenly bleated, over- 
whelmed by how quickly my leisurely, nostalgic stroll had unleashed a 
present-day nightmare. 

“Clean??” came the answer. “When churki are doing the cleaning?” 

Churki (logs) is a racial slur for Moscow’s nonwhite migrant workers 
from our former fraternal republics. Even on this gorgeous pre-Easter 
Saturday when the heart yearned to sing and Muscovites were buy- 
ing Dom Perignon for Easter brunch, workers from erstwhile Soviet 
Central Asia were out in force, sweeping sidewalks, unloading trucks, 
handing out leaflets promoting sushi bargains. Brushstroke by diligent 



brushstroke they were painting the historic pastebhued mansions and 
the nouveau-riche antihistoric replicas. Suddenly 1 understood why 
Moscow center had the eerie fake sheen of a movie set. 

Migrant workers in Moscow number anywhere from two to five 
million, possibly as much as a quarter of the capital’s ballooning pop- 
ulation. They’ve been flocking here since the midnineties, fleeing the 
post-Soviet Disasterstans. To be underpaid, abused by nationalists, ha- 
rassed by police. 

Beyond the hippo on her bench, a young Tajik street cleaner leaned 
on her broom. She gave a smile at my toes. “Finally a beautiful day,” 
she sighed. Last week when it snowed, my shift started at four a m.” 
Born in 1991, the year the Imperium ended, she had two babies back 
in Tajikistan. Her brothers were drug addicts. Her parents, she said, 
remembered Soviet rule as paradise. 

Moskva zloygorod, she concluded. “Moscow — mean city.” 

On Tsvetnoy, the last of the boulevards, finally it rose ahead, my senti- 
mental journey’s destination— the Central Market. The charmed food 
fairyland of my childhood was now a viciously expensive new mall with 
edgy international brands, artily designed by a British architectural 
firm. “Very post-bling,” I’d been told. 

Smiling stilettoed giraffes handed out outsize oranges by the en- 
trance. “Visit our Farmer’s Market upstairs,” they cooed. Their gaze 
lightly brushed my toes and moved on. 

Escalators ferried us aloft, past Commes des Garmons, Diesel, and 
Chloe, past puzzling conceptual art and hip displays of homegrown 
fashion genius. 

The Farmer’s Market held nary a farmer. 

The buzzy-bucolic name had been cooked up by a local restau- 
rant group for their organically minded epicurean food hall. We 
wandered this New Russian arcadia, ogling hundred-dollar boxes of 
Italian chocolates, farmhouse French cheeses, newfangled sashimi, 
and Iberico hams, all arranged under the dramatic sweep of the 


Twenty-first Century: Putin on the Ritz 

stainless-steel ceiling. Here was Moscow throwing down its Guccied 
gauntlet at storied food halls like Berlin’s Ka De We and London’s 

A dewy-cheeked Kyrgyz Eve called out from a fruit aisle with a 
shiny red apple. 

“This, dear madam, is honey-sweet,” she enticed. “Just arrived from 
Bordeaux. Or perhaps something tart — a Pippin from Britain? Or 
here,” she sirened on, “here’s our own little apple!” 

A bumpy, mottled-green specimen of the native Semerenko variety 
now reposed in her delicate hand. 

“Looks homely,” I muttered. 

"Oh, but the heavenly taste will transport you straight to your dacha 
childhood,” our Kyrgyz lovely promised, smiling ethereally. 

I chewed on a wedge and grimaced. The apple was sour. Around 
us cute Central Asian boys in retro flat caps slavishly steered shopping 
carts for ekskluziv patrons. Somehow the sight didn’t inspire old dacha 
reveries. And the whole au courant local-seasonal note rang hollow 
too — just another bit of imported post-bling bling. Not to mention that 
“our” apple was crazy expensive. 

“Anya,” I said, noting the Kyrgyz Eve’s name tag. “We’re namesakes!” 

“Nyet.” She suddenly went glum. “Aynazik is my native name,” she 
murmured. “But think anyone here would bother pronouncing it? 

“Moskva — zloygorod,” she whispered, holding out an apple for the next 
passing customer. “ Moscow — mean city.” 

On the way out we received more free oranges, along with a lus- 
trous onion from Holland. Boarding the trolley back to the flat, I felt 
extremely alienated from this new Moscow. I called Dad’s wife, Lena, 
on my cell to ask if there were any affordable food shops in this city 
of Cartier-priced pippins. “Not in the center, my dear!” Lena giggled. 
Non-elites no longer lived in the center. They sold or rented their flats 
and lived off the income in faraway suburbs rich in diskaunt outlets like 
Kopeechka (literally “Little Kopek”). “You can try taking a metro, 
then a shuttle bus to Kopeechka,” suggested Lena. “But their produce 
is often rotten.” 



We found Mom in the khi-rize, prattling on three phones at once. 

“Moscow,” she was saying to someone. “What a mean city.” 

★ ★ ★ 

The Easter weekend’s unsentimental journeys were over; the work week 
was upon us. 

So just what brought me— you might wonder by now— to Putin’s 
mean petro-dollar capital for an entire month > An incoherent jumble 
of motives, really. Seeing family. Resavoring flowering boulevards and 
dusty museums. Testing the scandalous scale of apple sticker shock. 
Fishing for socialist relics— my poisoned madeleines— amid the gleam- 
ing piers of Villeroy & Boch showrooms. 

Beyond that? Beyond that I had one clear task on the agenda, and it 
was all Dasha’s doing. 

Dasha Hubova was a professor of cultural anthropology turned TV 
producer. We’d met by chance at a three-star chefs’ conference in Ma- 
drid. I had read her article on the oral history of the 1932 Ukrainian 
famine. It was gut-wrenching stuff about the death of infants, cannibal- 
ism. Imagine my shock in Madrid when I learned that this very Dasha 
now ran Telecafe, the twenty-four-hour digital food channel owned by 
Russia’s media giant, Channel One. From famines to round-the-clock 
food porn— such a New Russian trajectory, I thought. 

Little realizing where that trajectory would intersect with mine. 

“Come to Moscow, we’ll give you a show,” tempted Dasha after film- 
ing me a bit in Madrid. She even agreed to a separate gig for my mother 
when I glowingly flacked Mom’s credentials. (“Ace at historic meals! 
Chirps like a nightingale in lilting Russian, uncorrupted by post-Soviet 

Mom was ecstatic. Her luggage to Moscow held photogenic ward- 
robe ensembles and a thick folder of notes for her six-part show-to-be 
on historic cuisines. Sixty years after failing her drama school exams in 
Stalin s Moscow, my mamochka, Larisa Naumovna Frumkina, was finally 
getting her close-up. And her cooking had gotten it for her. 

Each of us was assigned a chef and filmed in his kitchen. Mom’s 


Twenty-first Century: Putin on the Ritz 

partner was Alexander Vasilievich, from a restaurant called CDL (the 
Russian acronym for Central House of Writers), part of the old Writ- 
ers Union. One of Moscow’s most flagrantly historic locations, its 
Gothic-romantic 1889 mansion was where Soviet literary elites gath- 
ered for legendary dinners and readings — all inaccessible, of course, 
to us mere mortals. Here the devil dined in Bulgakov’s The Master and 

And here now, dropping in on Mom’s shoot, 1 heard a director 
shout: “Svet nageroinyu — more lights on the heroinel” 

Mom beamed, glowing, ever the “heroine.” Her chef sidekick, on the 
other hand— middle-aged, painfully shy Alexander Vasilievich— seemed 
to want the floor to open and swallow him up. 

I left them and headed to a retro- Soviet candy shop across the street. 

I had in mind an experiment. Under thick glass were arrayed sweets by 
the Red October Chocolate Factory— the pet confectionary of the food 
commissar Anastas Mikoyan, still in operation though now owned by 
a German concern. Earlier, among the nostalgic Little Squirrel and 
Mishka the Clumsy Bear chocolates, I’d spotted the ananas — object of 
my dread, shame, torment, and triumph in kindergarten. Now I bought 
myself a candy and sucked on the crunchy chocolate shell, slowly lick- 
ing toward the center, exactly as I had four decades before. I was trying, 
I confess, to manufacture a madeleine-esque moment. But the filling, 
so excruciatingly luscious to me once with its synthetic-exotic flavor of 
pineapple, now tasted simply . . . synthetic. Something feebly tried to 
stir in me, then faded. With a sigh, 1 went tramping back to the khi-rize 
as Moscow scowled at my flip-flops. 

That night, I reluctantly changed into semi-stilettos — for dinner with 
oligarchs. Russia’s nouveau riche are not the smug-faced gangsters in 
maroon velvet jackets they used to be. Now entering their post-bling 
stage, they send their kids to Oxford, donate to the arts, sometimes 
even forsake ritzy Petrus for old, noble Barolos. 

And who of all people had become the biggest fan and friend of the 
oligarchs? My pauperist, antiestablishment mom! For some time, rich 



Russians had been falling madly in love with her when she squired them 
around the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. She responded 
with affection. “They’ve become cultured,” she claimed. Occasionally 
she even entertained oligarchs at her cramped immigrant quarters in 
Queens. “A hundred million dollars?” repeated one very nice oil man 
to my question about what constituted wealth in Russia. He chuckled 
good-naturedly, full of Mom’s borscht. “A hundred million’s not even 

Now, in Moscow, our hosts were a charming fiftyish couple, vet- 
erans of my mother’s tours of the Met. They had a family bank. We 
dined at a panoramic Italian restaurant at the newly renovated Hotel 
Ukraine; it was visible through binoculars from our khi-rize. From our 
roof terrace table we could almost touch the mammoth stone Stalin- 
ist stars and hammer-and-sickles at the base of the hotel’s refurbished 
spire. Mr. Banker wore a Pucci-esque shirt; Mrs. Banker, flat shoes. She 
laughed heartily at my flip-flop adventures. 

“No onions,” Mr. Banker told the waiter. “No garlic or hot peppers.” 

“You’re . . . Buddhist?” I gasped. 

“Da, da” he acknowledged, ever so modest. “We converted during 
the 2008 financial crisis. The stress.” 

“Twenty years,” murmured Mrs. Banker into her forty-dollar 
garlic-free pizza. “Twenty years since the USSR. How we’ve changed.” 

Barry joked about all the Land Rovers and Bentleys in Moscow. Ev- 
eryone laughed. 

"Actually we have a Range Rover,” confessed Mr. Banker. 

“And also a Bentley,” confessed his wife. 

“What’s a Bentley?” asked Mom. 

★ ★ ★ 

With Mom’s TV shoot done and mine yet to come, we went for a fam- 
ily reunion out in Davydkovo. My cousin Masha lived there now, in our 
former khrushcheba apartment. Exiting the metro, I suggested a quick 
pre-reunion stroll in the woods. The Davydkovo pine woods, where 
Stalin’s dacha still lay. Brooding, mysterious. 


Twenty-first Century: Putin on the Ritz 

Him again. 

The Father of All Nations had at least a dozen government dachas. 
But the one behind the thirteen-foot green fence in Davydkovo by my 
ex-Central Committee kindergarten was his actual home for more 
than two decades. From the Kremlin to here was a twelve-minute trip 
in the Leader’s armored black Packard. Hence the dacha’s nickname, 
Blizhnyaya, the “nearest one.” 

A fewyears earlier, photos of the inaccessible Blizhnyaya started pop- 
ping up on the Internet. I pored over the images of the neo-modernist 
green country house— all straight-lined functionality denounced 
by Stalinist ideologues but apparently privately favored by the Boss. 
Weirdly disturbing, his personal coat hanger; his dark, monastic bath- 
robes with the shortened sleeve for his withered left arm. 

The Blizhnyaya, initially modest in size, had been built in 1934 by the 
architect Miron Merzhanov (arrested in 1943, released after his client’s 
death) and surrounded with thick, trucked-in trees. The nature-loving 
Generalissimo took special interest in the planting of beliye (porcini) 
mushroom patches; in our harsh northern climate the heroic dacha gar- 
deners even raised watermelons, which were sometimes sold to unsuspect- 
ing shoppers at the opulent Yeliseevsky food emporium on Gorky Street. 

Churchill, Mao, and Tito all slept on the second floor added in 
1943. Their ever-paranoid host, though, hardly ever used a bedroom. 
He'd doze off on one of the hard Turkish couches scattered about; on 
one such, on March 1, 1953, he suffered his fatal stroke. 

A few years earlier, too, journalists were given an unprecedented 
tour of the secret green house. There were hints the dacha was being 
declassified; in Moscow now I hoped to pull some journalistic strings 
and at last penetrate that tall fence in the forest, behind which lay the 
presence that haunted my most impressionable childhood. With Barry 
and Mom along, I intended a little reconnaissance. 

The pine trees seemed less majestic than I remembered. Along 
muddy paths, yummy mommies in skinny jeans and stilettos pushed 
strollers; vigorous pensioners speed-walked by, arm in arm. There it 
loomed at last: the dacha’s fence. Two blond young guards in uniform 
stood by a side entrance, smoking. Unsmiling. 



“The dacha . . . um . . . er . . . Stalin?” I mumbled. 

“Classified object,” I was informed. "No questions permitted.” 

As if drawn by an inner force, I led us away to another, much lower 
fence. Beyond it, through evergreens, I could make out a low pale-brick 
building—my old kindergarten, where I gagged on nomenklatura caviar 
and sucked in ecstasy on the ananas candy. The sight of my former prison 
catapulted me back to my sad-eyed bulimic past with such violence that 
I clutched onto a sticky pine trunk, desperately gulping the resinous air. 
The madeleine had attacked. 

I pulled myself together and we left the woods. A deluxe apartment 
complex towered ahead, gleaming and shiplike. STALIN’S DACHA an- 
nounced the sign on the inevitable fence. APARTMENTS FOR SALE BY 

“People don’t mind living in a building named after Stalin?” I asked 
an Uzbek guard, a fresh ripple of nausea stirring. 

“Why?” He grinned. “I’m sure they’re proud.” 

“How about a Molotov tennis court?” Barry asked, after we trans- 
lated. “Or a Beria swimming pool?” 

“Beria?” puzzled the guard, catching the name. He looked confused. 

We hurried off, late now to Masha’s, and promptly got lost among 
Davydkovo’s identical five-story sixties-era apartment blocks. The 
cracked concrete walls and laundry flapping from rickety balconies were 
depressing and slumlike, all too familiar. But no, this was Moscow 2011: 
Barry had to stop, several times, to fasten his tourist lens on a Maserati 
parked by a rusted fence or an overflowing hulk of graffiti-scrawled gar- 
bage bins. 

We recovered a little around Masha’s table. After dinner she took 
me into the bedroom and began pulling out small cardboard boxes 
from drawers and closets. 1 reached into one box and felt the cold 
metal heft of my grandfather’s medals. Masha and I tipped the whole 
treasure onto the bed. Order of Lenin, of Victory, of the Red Banner. 
Just as we had decades ago, we pinned the medals to our chests and 
danced a little in front of the mirror. Then we sat on the bed, holding 


Twenty-first Century: Putin on the Ritz 


The following noon I plucked a grape from a ruby-red crystal ped- 
estaled bowl, cranked a heavily lipsticked smile for the cameras, and 
thought a monstrous thought: one of history’s bloodiest dictators likely 
touched this bowl I’m eating from. 

Him again. 

No, I hadn’t slid into obsessional fantasy. I was on my TV shoot, 
an hour from Moscow at the super-bourgeois dacha of Viktor Belyaev, 
ex-Kremlin chef and my show partner. 

Until a heart attack a few years before, Viktor had spent three 
high-stress decades cooking for the top Soviet hierarchy. From this 
lofty gig he’d inherited porcelain manufactured exclusively for Kremlin 
banquets, and a red crystal bowl set named Rubinovy (ruby, after the 
Kremlin star). The crystal’s former owner? The mustachioed one him- 
self. More astounding still, the bowls had come from the dacha.— that 
green dacha. Date of issue: 1949, Stalin’s seventieth jubilee year, cel- 
ebrated so joyously, the entire Pushkin Museum of Art was comman- 
deered as a giant display case for gifts to Dear Leader. 

Viktor was disarmingly friendly and compulsively talkative. When 
Dasha the producer had originally said “Kremlin chef,” I imagined a 
dour Party hack with a heavy KGB past. Instead, in his baby-blue cash- 
mere sweater and discreet gold neck chain, Viktor suggested a relaxed 
clone of Louis Prima, the jazz man; he had a very jazzy Chevy Camaro 
parked in his driveway. 

Bonding with him pre-shoot over a quick cigarette out on the porch, 
I was amazed to learn that Viktor had cooked at the dacha in 1991, tight 
before Gorbachev’s resignation. The mineral secretary had a residence 
on Blizhnyaya’s grounds, which he never used and wanted to convert 
into a small hotel— for international hiznes VIPs. Viktor was brought in 
to handle the food operation and do some catering in the main house. 

“ Gorbach ,” huffed Viktor. “Nobody’s favorite boss! Half my staff 
quit because of Raisa— that harpy-from-hell, our First Lady. Now, 
Brezhnev’s wife — she was golden.” 



“Viktor,” I pressed. “Please — the dacha!” 

Viktor shuddered theatrically, fingered his gold chain. “Horrify- 
ing musty smell of sinister history . . . moats and drawbridges every- 
where . . . some of the pine trees even hollowed out with doors and 
windows— for guards!” Because the Generalissimo detested all food 
smells, a massive three-hundred-yard corridor separated Blizhnyaya’s 
dining room from the kitchen. “And his closet . . .” Viktor grimaced. “I 
knew Stalin was short, but his clothes . . . they were for a child — or a midget.” 

Viktor initially learned about the forbidding green dacha from 
his elderly mentor, a certain Vitaly Alexeevich (last name strictly se- 
cret), formerly one of Stalin’s personal chefs. On March 6, 1953, Vitaly 
Alexeevich dutifully reported for his shift. He was met on the dacha 
porch by Valechka, the Generalissimo’s loyal housekeeper and, possibly, 
mistress. She had a car waiting for him. 

“Flee,” Valechka told him. “Now! Drive as far as you can. Disap- 
pear!!” Stalin’s death had just been announced. 

The chef ran, while other dacha staffers perished at Beria’s orders. 
He returned to Moscow the day of Beria’s execution, and for the rest of 
his life laid flowers on the housekeeper’s grave. 

“Vitaly Alexeevich was a cook otboga (God’s talent),” sighed Viktor. 
“He’d sing to his dough to help it to rise.” I thought of Mom’s and my 
struggles to crack the mysteries of Slavic yeast dough for our kulebiaka. 
Crooning to it, as Stalin’s chef had done— was that the secret? 

“So was it really haunted, the dacha?” I wanted to know, thinking 
of all the times I slinked past the green fence during kindergarten, my 
heart hammering. 

Viktor shuddered again. 

At the end of his first night catering at Blizhnyaya, he was sitting 
alone in Stalin’s old dining room. He leaned on the massively long 
wooden table, the one at which murderous Politburo men gathered for 
their nocturnal banquets four decades before. An eerie silence Sud- 

denly Viktor heard footsteps . . . footsteps so ghostly, he bolted into the 
woods drenched in cold sweat. The same thing happened to the actor 
who played Stalin during a 1991 film shoot there. And when Stalin’s 


Twenty-first Century: Putin on the Ritz 

old dacha guard was invited back for a documentary, he suffered a heart 
attack. “ His boot leather — ” stammered the guard at the hospital. “I 
smelled it — his boot leather and the Karelian birch of his furniture!” 

At this point we were summoned back inside. The TV cameras 
were ready for us. 

The sight of Viktor’s table almost gave me a heart attack myself. 

For our shoot—on Soviet cuisine — my partner had conjured up a 
Technicolor fantasia out of The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food— Politburo 
dreambook edition. Dainty, open-faced rasstegai fish pies nestled in- 
side Stalinist crystal; an elaborate beef roulade layered with a deli- 
cate omelet reposed on a Kremlin-issue porcelain platter. There was 
even a torte outfitted with caramel rockets, contributed by a generous 
ex- nomenklatura confectioner. Polyot (“flight”), the torte was called: a me- 
ringue relic from the sixties kosmos- mania era. 

I stared transfixed at this culinary time capsule. At the jellied ham 
rolls under mayonnaise curlicues, in particular. Early September, 1974: 
Praga restaurant take-out shop. Me standing — for the very last time, I 
thought — in the gigantic line for our Sunday kulebiaka as Mom at home 
irons out final immigration formalities. I’m eyeing the jellied curlicued 
ham rolls my parents couldn’t ever afford, thinking desperately: Never in 
my life will I see them again. 

And now I learn that pre-Kremlin, Viktor cooked at Praga! 

My Praga. 

Was there some profound meaning in all this coincidence? Flad 
some god of Soviet Civilization sent Viktor my way to help me properly 
savor my childhood’s treasures and reveal its mysteries? 

Arriving in Moscow this trip I’d been crestfallen to learn that my 
Praga was closed. One of the city’s last pre-Soviet great restaurants had 
been bought by the Italian designer Roberto Cavalli, to be converted, 
no doubt, into a post-bling elite playground. Seeing its iconic yellow 
facade disfigured by scaffolding at the head of Novy Arbat, I felt as if 
some dear old grandparent had died. 

Viktor and I mourned the closure of Praga as the cameras rolled. 
“A-plus,” hooted our young director. “I’m loving you guys’ chemistry!” 



Feeling relaxed at last, I prattled on about stalking diplomats by Praga’s 
entrance and hawking Juicy Fruit gum at school. The mostly youthful, 
post-Soviet crew lapped up my socialist misadventures. 

“More! More stories like this!” they cried. 

When Dasha had originally suggested a show on Soviet cuisine — 
“The topic is hot ” — Fd been bewildered. 

“But isn’t Moscow full of people who remember the USSR a lot bet- 
ter than I do? I mean, I’m from New York!” 

“You don’t understand,” said Dasha. “Flere we have mishmash for 
our memory. But an emigre like you— you remember things clearly!” 

After the lunch, and before the shashlik (kebab) grill shoot by his 
dacha backyard swimming pool, Viktor clued me in on his time at the 
Kremlin kitchens. 

Supplies were from their very own teeming farms. So damn rich 
was Politburo milk, truckers would loosely set deep metal lids on the 
milk buckets, and by arrival the clattering lids had churned up gorgeous 
thick, sticky cream. For instant pilfering. 

I was astonished. “You mean despite all the perks — elite housing, 
Crimean resorts, special tailors — Kremlin employees still stole?” 

“And how!” chuckled Viktor. Soon after taking over he raided his 
employees’ lockers and turned up sixty kilos of loot. “And that was before 

There beneath the twenty-five-foot ceiling of the main old Kremlin 
kitchen he made other discoveries too: 

A war-trophy forty-eight-burner electric stove belonging to Goebbels. 

A massive mixer from Flimmler’s country house. 

Czar’s dog bowls from 1876. 

Ivan the Terrible’s former torture tunnel. With a slanted floor— to 
drain blood. 

“Ready for the poolside shashlik!” announced the director. 


Twenty-first Century: Putin on the Ritz 

After we wrapped and the crew headed home, I sat around with Vik- 
tor and his wife, eating leftovers. I was dazed by what I’d learned at his 
fantasy table. It was akin to discovering that Santa Claus was somehow, 
after all, real. The Soviet myth of plenty that my latter-Soviet genera- 
tion had scoffed at? That fabled abundance so cynically, even existen- 
tially scorned? 

How spectacularly it had flourished on Kremlin banquet tables. 

The Politburo loved to stun foreign guests with Soviet opulence. 
Train convoys from all over the empire carried sausage from the Ukraine 
in porcelain tubs, lavish fruit from Crimea, dairy from the Baltic re- 
publics, brandies from Dagestan. Seven pounds of food per person was 
the official banquet norm. Black caviar glistened in crystal bowls atop 
“Kremlin walls” carved from ice tinted with red beet juice. Lambs were 
boiled whole, then deep-fried; suckling pigs sported mayonnaise show 
ribbons and olives for eyes. Massive sturgeons reclined majestically on 
spotlighted aquarium pedestals aflutter with tiny live fish. Outside, we 
queued up for wrinkled Moroccan oranges in subzero winters; inside 
the Kremlin, there were passionfruit, kiwis, and, as Viktor put it ten- 
derly, “adorable baby-bananchiki .” 

“Just imagine,” waxed Viktor. “The colorful lights at Georgievsky 
Hall in the Grand Palace are finally lit, the Soviet anthem starts up, 
everyone’s awestruck by all that glimmering china and glittering 
crystal . . .” 

Putin’s protocol guys dustbinned the glitter and glimmer. 

I suppose in a city with the world’s thickest swarm of billionaires — 
where a Pilates studio is never far away and sashimi is flown in daily 
from Tokyo — there wasn’t much call for gastronomic Potemkin vil- 
lages anymore. So the staged fairy tales of abundance had finally been 
retired— along with all that crystal and nonsustainable caviar. Instead 
of fifteen zakuski, Kremlin banquets now featured bite-size pirozhki, 
and small bowls of berries sat where receptacles piled with glowing fruit 
once towered triumphant. 

Fairly recently Putin added a wrinkle: USSR nostalgia. “Her- 
ring under fur coat,” meat brawn — current Kremlin chefs now served 
communal-apartment dishes in dainty individual portions alongside 



foie gras and carpaccio. Which struck me as a perfect expression of the 
New Russian pastiche. 

Today’s streamlined service made sense, Viktor conceded as he 
poured us a rare Masandra Port from Crimea. But he missed those days 
of yore, I could tell. Who wouldn’t miss actually living inside a socialist 
fantasy? Me? Misty-eyed, I told Viktor that his table was the closest 
I'd ever come to the skatert’ samobranka, the magic tablecloth of Russian 

Viktor left the Kremlin after his heart attack and now ran a cater- 
ing company and a restaurant. He headed the association of Russian 
restaurateurs, trying to promote native cuisine. That battle was lost, 
though, he thought. 

“Young Russian chefs can do pizzas — but who remembers how to 
cook our kasha?” And he sighed a heartfelt sigh. He who had presided 
over the gleam of Kremlin walls carved out of red ice. 

Back at the khrrizc I was reviewing my notes — Gorbachev, per Viktor: Ate 
little. Drank even less. Left banquets after forty minutes. Yeltsin : Loved lamb chops. 
Lousy dancer — when my email pinged. It was a message from another 
world, from El Bulli near Barcelona. 

The world’s most magical and important restaurant was about to 
close forever, and Ferran (the chef) and Juli (co-owner) wanted me to 
attend a farewell dinner. I’d known the two of them since 1996. Their 
Catalan temple of avant-garde cooking was an intimate part of my pro- 
fessional history. My first visit fifteen years before had transformed 
everything I thought and wrote about food. “You’re family,” Ferran 
always told me. And now here I was, stuck in mean, alien Moscow, un- 
grounded in past or present, fumbling with madeleines. My visa was 
single-entrance, so I couldn’t even slip out to say a hurried farewell. 

I slumped in my chair, stung by loss from my real life. Queridos Amigos! 
I started to type, Estoy en Moscu cruel, muy lamentablemente no puedo ... A 
strange rumbling from below interrupted my Spanish. There was 
something world-devouring and cataclysmic to it, as if a tsunami were 
approaching. My desk began to vibrate. 


Twenty-first Century: Putin on the Ritz 

We all ran to the windows. Way down below us tanks slowly rolled 
through the rainy night along deserted Novy Arbat. Missile launchers 
came prowling after them, then troop carriers, artillery. 

The phone rang. “Watching Victory Day rehearsal?” my dad chortled 
almost merrily. “The tekhnika (hardware) should be passing you now — right 
under the big billboard for that movie Malchishnik Dva (Hangover 2)!” 

“Tanki i banki, tanks and banks,” grumbled my mom. “Welcome to 

★ ★ ★ 

The great celebrations of Victory Day-May 9— drew closer. Putin- 
land’s officious militaristic patriotism went into overdrive. To judge 
from the hype, the lollapalooza promised to out-wow even anything 
we’d seen under Brezhnev. 

The airwaves overflowed now with the Great Patriotic War (VOV 
in abbreviated Russian). Forties black-and-white films, close-ups of 
blokada bread, piercing footage of a little girl playing piano with frozen 
hands in besieged Leningrad — suddenly there was no escaping them. 
On buses old people and migrant workers hummed along to war songs 
piped over the sound systems. Helpful ads enticed cell phone users to 
dial 1— 9— 4— 5 and get a free VOV tune as a ringtone. 

In Brezhnev’s time the State had co-opted the mythic traumas and 
triumph of the Great Patriotic War to reinfuse ideology into a cyni- 
cal young generation. Russians had grown a lot more cynical since. In 
today’s society, one so desperately lacking an anchoring national narra- 
tive, the Kremlin was once again exploiting the cult of VOV to mobilize 
what was left of national patriotism, to bring generations together in a 
tightly scripted rite of remembering. “My narod pobeditel” (We, nation 
victorious) — I now heard it ad nauseam, just as I had in my childhood. 
Unheard: the catastrophic official blunders costing millions of lives, the 
brutal post-war deportations of ethnic minorities. In case anyone mis- 
remembered? A “Commission for Countering Attempts to Falsify His- 
tory to the Detriment of the Interests of Russia” had been established 
in 2009. 



And who was it that had led Russia to its May 9 Victory? 

Perhaps I’d finally slid into obsessional fantasy. The run-up to Vic- 
tory Day appeared to my inflamed mind as a veritable Springtime for 

Men with rotten teeth and sour breath hawked sundry Staliniana at 
street stalls on cheesily pedestrianized Arbat Street, and even respect- 
able bookstores did a brisk business in Stalin fridge magnets. The Krem- 
lin had been careful about an open endorsement. Vernacular opinion, 
however, told a different story. Nearly half of all Russians polled saw 
Stalin in a positive light. A notorious 2008 TV survey had the Gen- 
eralissimo rated third for “most important Russian in history” — barely 
edged by Prince Alexander Nevsky of Eisenstein film fame, and Pyotr 
Stolypin, a reformist early-twentieth-century prime minister noisily 
admired by Putin. But everyone believed the results had been cooked to 
suppress the controversial truth. 

I noticed that in the popular imagination his figure seemed split. 
The bad Stalin was the orchestrator of the gulags. The^ood Stalin was an 
ur-Russian brand projecting power and victory. 

It was deeply distressing. 

Amid all this ideological ghoulism and ahistorical mishmash the khi-rize 
became my refuge, the haven of my own pre-post-Soviet innocence. 
What a perfect comfort it was, easily idealized and yet so authentic. I 
got a lump in my throat every time I entered the woody, cozily modern- 
ist lobby. I loved the achingly familiar USSRreek of cat spray and acrid 
cleaning detergent. Loved the coarse blue oil-paint trim and the rotat- 
ing gallery of very Soviet concierge babushkas. 

Inna Valentinovna, my favorite babushka, was one of the khi-rize ’ s 
original residents. She had scored her prestige apartment during the 
late sixties for her scientific achievements and now whiled away her bus- 
tling, bossy retirement by concierging part-time. As May 9 drew nigh, 
she transformed our lobby into a maelstrom of veteran-related activity. 

“How our veterani love this!” she enthused, showing me the forlorn 


Twenty-first Century: Putin on the Ritz 

state gift packages of buckwheat groats, second-rate sprats, and em- 
phatically non-elite chocolates. 

“Dusty buckwheat,” groused Mom. “Putin’s thank-you to those who 
defended his Rodina.” 

Among our khi-rize VOV vets, I was particularly eager to meet a 
woman named Asya Vasilievna. She’d just completed a memoir, so Inna 
informed me, about her mentor and friend Anna Akhmatova, the great 
Russian poet of our sorrows after whom I was named. “Wait,” Inna 
kept admonishing me in her lobby stronghold. "Wait for her here!” But 
elderly Asya Vasilievna never appeared. 

Victory Day dawned. 

We watched the Red Square parade on TV. The Kremlin midgetry, 
Medvedev and Putin, commemorated the world’s largest catastrophe 
(a.k.a. VOV) wearing vaguely fascistic black overcoats. Vigorous octo- 
genarians shingled in medals surrounded them on the podium. “Arise, 
Our Vast Country,” the solemn 1940s VOV anthem, blared as elite 
guards began the old Soviet-imperial goose step — dressed in weirdly 
czarist-looking uniforms thick with blingy gold braid. 

“PPP,” scoffed my mom. “Putin’s Patriotic Pastiche.” 

In the afternoon Inna Valentinovna shepherded us to a neighborhood 
parade on Arbat Street. The local vets looked much frailer than the he- 
roes on Putin’s podium. Some could barely walk under the weight of their 
medals; others wheezed and coughed in the wind. Muscovites watched 
the shuffling throng of veterans with indifference, whereas Ayzeri men in 
black leather jackets whistled and clapped with great feeling. 

Inna Valentinovna pushed me toward one tall, sloped-shouldered, 
medal-hung nonagenarian. He had fought in the Baltic navy at the 
same time as my granddad. His gaze remained serene and absent even 
as schoolkids shoved big thorny roses into his leathery hands. 

“I’m from New York,” I stammered, feeling suddenly shy. “Perhaps 
you knew my grandfather — chief of Baltic naval intelligence Naum Sol- 
omonovich Frumkin.” 

After an uncertain pause, a glimmer animated his pale, ghostly 



“New York,” he quavered. “Not even the Nazis matched the enemy 
we faced after the war. New York ! Vile imperialist America!” 

And with great dignity he walked away from me. 

The reception was warmer in the bitterly cold shadows by Arbat’s 
hulking Vakhtangov Theater, where Inna Valentinovna beckoned us 
over to a cordoned-off vets’ VIP area of outdoor tables. A mock field 
kitchen was dispensing convincingly unappetizing wartime kasha from 
a fake cauldron and weak tea from a fake kettle. But the breaths around 
our wobbly plastic table reeked with reassuring eighty-proof authen- 
ticity. Our Styrofoam cups of tea were emptied and filled with vodka. 
A pickle materialized. Despite the droning, officious speeches, despite 
the sad spectacle of impoverished vets paraded around like stuffed dolls 
instead of receiving long-overdue benefits, a glow blossomed inside me. 
How precious, co-bottling in the cold with this crowd. How little time 
with them we had left. 

I soggily proposed a toast to my granddad. Tears of remorse ran 
down my cheeks as I recalled how Mom and Yulia threw out his Sorge 
memorabilia, how Cousin Masha and I giggled when, for the ump- 
teenth time, he reminisced about debriefing Nazis at the Nuremberg 
Trials. Now there were only fraying cardboard boxes of his medals and 
a yellowed German magazine cover on which Dedushka’s high forehead 
and ironic eyes hovered over the puffy-faced Hermann Goering. 

Next morning in the lobby I finally encountered the elusive Asya 

The memoirist friend of Anna Akhmatova had dark, quick, intel- 
ligent eyes and sported a smart vest. Overwhelmed, I kept holding and 
stroking her ancient hand. 

Asya Vasilievna met Akhmatova during their VOV evacuation in 

Vets got to make free phone calls on May 9, and Asya had spent 
hers talking to the granddaughter of Nikolai Punin, Akhmatova’s lover 
in the twenties and thirties. Punin brought Akhmatova into the Foun- 
tain House in St. Petersburg. There, in a dismal communal apartment 


Twenty-first Century-. Putin on the Ritz 

carved out of a wing of that former palace, Akhmatova resided for al- 
most three decades. 

1 once visited Akhmatova’s movingly curated museum at the Foun- 
tain House. A copy of Modigliani’s sketch of her hung on the wall of the 
monastically sparse room she once occupied. In this room Akhmatova 
had her epic all-night encounter with a young Isaiah Berlin from 
England, for which she was denounced by the state, her son sent back 
to the gulag. It was her bronze ashtray that brought me to tears. Know- 
ing the apartment was bugged, Akhmatova and her friend and biog- 
rapher, Lydia Chukovskaya, would utter loud trivialities — “Autumn is 
so early this year”— while the poet scribbled a new poem in pencil and 
Chukovskaya memorized the lines. Then they’d burn the page in the 

“Hands, matches, an ashtray,” wrote Chukovskaya. “A ritual beauti- 
ful and bitter.” 

Now in our khi-rize lobby, unbidden, Asya Vasilievna launched into 
Akhmatova’s poem “Requiem,” dedicated to the victims of purges. She 
began with the blood-curdling preface: In the dreadful years of the Tezhov 
terror I spent seventeen months in prison lines in Leningrad . . . 

She spoke as if in a trance, mimicking the low, slow, mournful reci- 
tation I knew from Akhmatova’s recordings. 

The stars of death stood above us, 

and innocent Russia writhed . . . 

“Let’s go sit so you’re more comfortable,” interrupted Inna Valen- 
tinovna, ushering us into a special vets’ room — a tiny pink-walled cub- 
byhole off the lobby, plastered with photos of VOV heroes. 

. . . and innocent Russia writhed 

beneath the bloody boots 

My gaze drifted across the gallery on the wall as Asya declaimed 
on. Marshal Zhukov. Voroshilov. Dashing Rokossovsky. And presiding 
over all, squinting his yellowish feline eyes . . . 




. . . beneath the bloody boots 

And the Black Marias’ tires . . . 

In Germany you’d be arrested for displaying the visage of Hitler, I 
thought. Here? Here a woman recited a searing dirge to those crushed 
in the purges — right beneath the executioner’s portrait! 

Something in me snapped. 1 wanted to howl, bang my head against 
the shiny Soviet-style table, flee from this insane asylum where history has 
been dismantled and Photoshopped into a pastiche of victims and murder- 
ers, dictators and dissidents, all rubbing sentimental shoulders together. 

I did howl after Asya finished. 

“Ladies!” I burst out. “Have you lost your marbles? Akhmatova’s 
testament to suffering . . . here under STALlN’s mustaches?” 

I finished, mortified at my outburst. How could I be haranguing 
these frail survivors of a terrible era? What right did I have to wag my 
finger at women who’d endured and outlived the Soviet century? My 
lips were shaking. I wanted to cry. 

The ladies seemed unoffended by my outburst. Asya Vasilievna’s 
dark eyes flickered with someslywisdom I couldn’t grasp. Her half-smile 
was almost mischievous. Inna Valentinovna patted me warmly on the 

“Iz pesni slov ne vykinesh” explained Inna Valentinovna, proffering an 
old Russian chestnut. “You can’t yank words out of a song.” 

Meaning: the past was the past, just as it was. Without executioners there 
would be no victims or poems. 

“What kind of logic is that?” I protested to my mother later. She 
pressed her hands to her temples and shook her head. 

“I’m glad I’m leaving soon,” she said. 

★ ★ ★ 

Our time in Moscow was drawing to a close. Mom was headed back 
to New York; Barry and I would leave a couple of days after her on 


Twenty-first Century: Putin on the Ritz 

a two-week magazine assignment in Europe. I looked forward to life 
again as I knew it: breathing Stalin-less air, perusing restaurant menus 
without going green at the prices, trundling around proud and free in 
my flip-flops. 

Mom finally flew off. Without her prattling on three phones at 
once and feeding streams of ravenous visitors, the khi-rize felt lonely and 
empty. Mom, I realized, had been my moral compass in Russia, my an- 
choring narrative. Without her Moscow had lost its point. 

Except for one last mission. The mission I’d been dreaming about 
most of the forty-plus years of my life — one of my secret reasons for 
coming here. Something I could never do with Mother around. 

“Mavzole y? Mausoleum?” 

“Da, nu? Mavzoley,” said the brusque voice answering the phone. 
“Yeah, what of it?” 

The voice sounded so disrespectful and young, I almost hung up in 

“Da! Nu?” demanded the voice. 

“Are, you . . . um, um . . . open?” I asked nervously, since some tourist 
websites suggested the V. I. Lenin Mausoleum was now closed on Sun- 
days, and Sunday — today — was our last chance. 

“Scheduled hours,” the voice snapped sardonically. 

“What’s the admission charge?” 

“In Russia we don’t charge for cemeteries!” cackled the voice. “Not 

The mausoleum line was the shortest I’d ever seen it, a scant 150 meters 

Lenin clearly wasn’t enjoying Stalin’s cachet; his days inside his 
eleet and ekskluztv Red Square real estate were numbered, I reckoned. 
Two-decades-old talk of burying him had flared up again. A prominent 
member of Putin’s United Russia Party noted, almost ninety years after 
the fact, that Lenin’s family had opposed mummification. Asked to vote 



at, 70 percent of Russians favored removal and burial. 
Only the Communist Party leadership yawped in outrage. 

We lined up between a skinny Central Asian man and a gaggle of 
noisy Italians in cool high-tech nylon gear. Our Central Asian neighbor 
flashed us a pure gold smile. In Soviet days, I recalled, brothers from ex- 
otic republics put their money right where their mouths were, installing 
twenty-four-karat teeth instead of trusting sberkassa (the state savings 

Roughly my age, the man introduced himself as Rahmat. “It means 
‘thank you’ in Tajik — ever heard of Tajikistan?” 

Mr. Thank You proved to be a font of flowery, heavily accented So- 
viet cliches. His city, Leninabad, bore the “proud name of Lenin!” To 
visit the mausoleum had been his “zavetnaya mechta — cherished dream.” 

“My dream, too,” I admitted, earning a round of twenty-four-karat 
smiles and ritual handshakes. 

On entering the mausoleum’s grounds you were made to surrender the 
works — wallets, cell phones, cameras. Photos were strictly forbidden. 

Which was unfortunate. 

Because something wildly, improbably, heart-stoppingly photogenic 
was taking place out in the center of cordoned-off Red Square. I heard 
bugles, drumbeats. Kids in white and blue uniforms were drawn up in 
ranks for their Young Pioneer induction ceremony. A big woman in 
polka-dots moved along the rows, tying scarlet kerchiefs around their 

“ARE YOU READY?” roared a loudspeaker. 

“ALWAYS READY!” cried the kids, giving the Young Pioneer salute. 

Was I hallucinating? Or were the girls really wearing the big Soviet 
white bows in their hair? 

“Vzeveites’ s kostrami sink nochi . . 

The relentless choral cheer of the Young Pioneer anthem filled Red 
Square. A scarlet myth blazed once more in the distance. 

“My pioneri deti rabochikh,” Rahmat and I sang along. “We’re Young 


Twenty-first Century: Putin on the Ritz 

Pioneers, children of workers!” With no anti-Soviet mother there to tug 
at my sleeve, 1 sang at the top of my lungs. 

“Frigging Young Pioneer Day,” a guard was explaining to someone 
nearby. “Every frigging year, the frigging communists with this . . . Look! 
Zyuganov!” The brick-faced current Communist Party leader was up 
on the makeshift podium. “Queridos companeros," someone began shout- 
ing in accented Spanish. “Welcoming comrades from shithole Havana,” 
grimaced the guard. “And for this freak show, they close Red Square!” 

We filed by the Kremlin Wall burial tombs where rest the noble 
remains of Brezhnev, Gagarin, the American John Reed, and, yes, 

“Us! Walking this holy ground!” Rahmat apostrophized behind 
Barry and me. “This holy ground at the very center of our socialist 

Such was his childish awe, I didn’t have the heart to remind him 
that the “proud four letters: CCCP” had been busted up twenty years 
ago, that in no way was Moscow his rodina. 

“Scared?” I whispered to him as we descended into the mystery of 
mysteries of my childhood — the mausoleum burial chamber. 

“Of what? Lenin isn’t scary,” Rahmat assured me serenely. “He is 
svetly (luminous) and krasivy (beautiful) and zhtvoy (alive).” 

Our face time with Vladimir Ilyich was barely two minutes, maybe 
less. Stony-featured sentries every ten feet in the darkness goaded us on 
a tight circuit around the glassed-in sarcophagus, where Object No. I 
lay, glowing, on heavy red velvet. I noted his/its polka-dot tie. And the 
extreme luminosity achieved by cunningly spotlighting his/its shining 

“Why is one fist clenched?” Barry whispered. 

“No talking! a sentry barked from the shadows. “Keep moving 
toward the exit!” 

And then it was over. 

I emerged into the Moscow Sunday confused and untransfigured. 



All these years ... for what? Suddenly it felt deeply, existentially trivial. 
Had I really expected to howl with laughter at the ritual kitsch? Or ex- 
perience anything other than the faintly comical anticlimactic creepi- 
ness I was feeling right now? 

Barry on the other hand seemed shaken. “That was,” he blurted, 
“the most fascist thing I’ve ever experienced in my life!” 

Red Square had reopened by now, and freshly minted Young Pio- 
neers streamed past us. With profound disappointment I realized that 
the girls’ big white Soviet bows were not the proper white nylon ribbon 
extravaganzas of my young days but small beribboned barrettes — fakes 
manufactured most likely in Turkey or China. 

“I remember my pride at becoming a Young Pioneer,” Rahmat 
beamingly told a blonde squirrel-faced girl. She sized up his gold teeth 
and his third world pointy-toed shoes, then my flip-flops, and shouted, 
“Get lost!” 

We milled around with Rahmat for a while. He’d arrived in the capi- 
tal just the day before and clearly hadn’t yet learned the “Moscow-mean 
city” mantra. He intended to look for construction work but, knowing 
not a soul, had come straight to the mausoleum to see Lenin’s “kind, 
dearly familiar face.” We smiled and nodded some more, with the vig- 
orous politesse of two strangers about to part after a fleeting bond on 
a bus tour. 

Two aliens, I reflected, a migrant worker and an emigre from her 
past, wandering Red Square beneath the gaudy marzipan swirls of St. 
Basil’s Cathedral. 

Finally Rahmat went trudging off to pay his respects to the Tomb 
of the Unknown Soldier. I felt a deep pang of sadness as I watched his 
slumped, lonely figure recede. My cell phone rang. It was Mom, calling 
at jet-lagged dawn from New York. 

“Where are you?” she asked. 

“Just walked out of the mausoleum,” I said. 

For a while there was silence. 

“idiotka,” Mom finally snorted, then made a kiss-kiss sound and went 
back to bed. 




A fantasy of abundance: the opening spread from the 1952 edition of The Book of Tasty and 
Healthy Food 




Fish, Rice, and Mushrooms in Pastry 

Our decadent, farewell-to-the-czars fish kulebiaka layered with blin- 
chiki (crepes) was probably the most spectacular thing Mom and I have 
ever made in our lives. And so time-consuming that I can’t really rec- 
ommend you try it at home. Instead, I offer here a far less laborious 
version-minus the complicated layers and blinchiki— that will still 
leave your guests gasping with awe. The sour cream in the yeast dough 
(Mom’s special touch) adds a lovely tang to the buttery casing. Inside, 
the flavors of wild mushrooms, dill, and two types of fish all mingle 
seductively. Serve the kulebiaka for special occasions with a green salad 
and lemon-flavored vodka. Lots of it. 


Serves 6 to 8 

V4 cup warm milk 

1 package active dry yeast 

(2 teaspoons) 

2 teaspoons sugar 

1 large raw egg; plus 2 hard- 
cooked eggs, finely chopped 

3 4 cup sour cream 

Vi teaspoon kosher salt, plus more 
to taste 

8 tablespoons unsalted butter, 
cut into small pieces; plus 
4 tablespoons for the filling 

2/4 cups flour, plus more as 

3 tablespoons canola or peanut oil 

8 ounces boneless, skinless salmon 
fillet, cut into i-inch pieces 

8 ounces boneless, skinless cod 
fillet, cut into I-inch pieces 

2 medium onions, finely chopped 

10 ounces wild or cremini 
mushrooms, wiped clean and 
finely chopped 

1 cup cooked white rice 



3 tablespoons finely chopped dill 

3 tablespoons finely chopped flat- 
leaf parsley 

2 tablespoons vermouth or dry 

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice 

3 tablespoons chicken stock 

1 pinch freshly grated nutmeg 

Freshly ground black pepper, to 

2 to 3 tablespoons dried bread 

Glaze: i egg yolk whisked with 
2 teaspoons milk 

1. MAKE THE PASTRY: In a medium bowl stir together the milk, 
yeast, and sugar and let stand until foamy. Whisk in the raw egg, Vi cup 
sour cream, and the salt. In a large bowl, combine the 8 tablespoons of 
cut-up butter with the flour. Using your fingers, work the butter into 
the flour until the mixture resembles coarse bread crumbs. Add the 
yeast mixture and stir well with your hands to make a soft dough. Wrap 
the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours. 

2. Bring the dough to room temperature, about i hour. Grease a 
mixing bowl with a little butter or oil. Turn the dough out onto a floured 
work surface and knead, adding more flour as needed, until smooth and 
no longer sticky, about 5 minutes. Transfer the dough to the greased 
bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and leave in a warm place until doubled 
in size, about 2 hours. 

3. MAKE THE FILLING: In a large skillet heat the oil and 2 table- 
spoons butter over medium-high heat. Add the salmon and cod and 
cook, turning once, until fish just begins to flake, about 7 minutes. 
Transfer the fish to a large bowl. Return the skillet to medium-high 
heat and add the remaining 2 tablespoons butter. Add the onions and 
cook until light golden. Add the mushrooms and cook until they are 
golden and the liquid they throw off has evaporated, about 7 minutes, 
adding more oil if the skillet looks dry. Transfer the mushrooms and 
onions to the bowl with the fish. Add the remaining V4 cup sour cream, 
the hard-cooked eggs, rice, dill, parsley, vermouth, lemon juice, stock, 
and nutmeg. Mix everything well with two forks, stirring gently to 


i9ios: Kulebiaka 

break up the fish. Season with salt and pepper. Let the filling cool to 
room temperature. 

4 Preheat the oven to 400T. with the rack set in the center. Halve 
the dough and form two logs. On two lightly floured sheets ofwax paper, 
roll each dough log into a 10 by lb-inch rectangle. Transfer one dough 
sheet to a large foil-lined baking sheet. Sprinkle with bread crumbs, 
leaving a i-inch border. Spread the filling over the bread crumbs in a 
neat compact layer. Drape the remaining dough over the filling and 
pinch the edges to seal. Trim excess dough from the edges, and reserve 
scraps. Fold up the edges of dough and crimp decoratively. Let the kule- 
biaka rise for 15 minutes. Brush the top of the pastry with egg glaze. 
Roll out the dough scraps, cut into decorative shapes, and press on top 
of the dough. Brush again with the egg glaze. Poke small holes through 
the top of dough for steam to escape. Bake until golden and beautiful, 
about 35 minutes. Let cool for 10 minutes, cut into slices, and serve. 




Stuffed Whole Fish, Odessa-Style 

M om and I had our first-ever seder upon immigrating to Philadelphia 
in 1974. There we were, at the posh suburban home of our kind Jew- 
ish sponsors, being paraded around as “heroic refugees” in our shabby 
Salvation Army clothes. Everyone stared and sang “Let My People Go,” 
while Mom and I wept, from emotion mixed with embarrassment. To 
make matters worse, stammering out passages from the Haggadah in 
my still-broken English, I kept saying “ten pleasures” instead of “ten 
plagues.” Then came the gefilte fish. Flashing back to the red-haired 
sisters of my Odessa summer, I tucked into the neat American fish 
ball with great curiosity . . . and could barely swallow! The taste was 
so shockingly sweet. Mom and I later concluded that the hostess must 
have accidentally added sugar instead of salt. At our second seder the 
following night, the fish balls were even sweeter. Noticing our bewilder- 
ment, the host explained that his people come from Southern Poland, 
where Jews liked their gefilte fish sweet. “You Russians, don’t you make 
your fish peppery?” he inquired. Mom blushed. She’d never once made 
gefilte fish. 

Now, many seders later, she and I know that Russian and Ukrai- 
nian Jewish babushkas usually cut the fish into thick steaks, remove 
the meat to grind with onions and carrots, then pack this stuffing (un- 
sweetened) into the skin around the bones. The fish simmers forever 
with vegetables until the bones all but dissolve-delicious, though not 
very pretty. Perfectionists go a step further. Like those Odessa sisters, 
they stuff a whole fish. If you can find a submissive fishmonger will- 
ing to remove the skin in one piece — like a stocking, with the tail still 
attached— this is by far the most festive and dramatic gefilte fish pre- 
sentation. The head is packed with some of the filling and poached 
alongside. At serving time, you reassemble the beast and get ready for 


7920s.- Gefilte Fish 

compliments. If you don’t have a whole skin, just make a loaf and lay a 
long strip of skin on top as a decoration. And of course, you can always 
prepare delicious fish balls from this mixture, in which case you’ll need 
about 3 quarts of stock. 

Back in 1920s Odessa my great-grandmother Maria prepared her 
gefilte fish with pike from the Privoz market. In America many emigre 
matrons use carp. My personal favorite is a combo of delicate whitefish 
with the darker, oilier carp. And while this recipe does contain a large 
pinch of sugar, it’s the masses of slowly cooked onions that deliver the 
sweetness. With plenty of horseradish at table, please. 


Serves IO to 12 as a first course 

4 to 5 tablespoons peanut oil or 
pareve margarine, plus more 
as needed 

2 large onions, finely chopped; 
plus 1 small onion, coarsely 

2 sheets matzo, broken into pieces 

3 medium carrots, peeled; 1 carrot 
coarsely chopped, the other 

2 left whole 

1 whole whitefish, pike, or another 
firm fish, about 4 pounds, 
skinned (see headnote) and 
filleted (you should have 
about 1 Vi pounds fillets), 
head reserved; fillet cut into 
small pieces 

I Vi pounds carp fillets, cut 
into small pieces 

3 large eggs 

1 tablespoon ice-cold water 

1 teaspoon sugar, or more to taste 

2 teaspoons kosher salt and 
freshly ground white or 
black pepper to taste 

4 cups fish stock (store-bought 
is fine) or chicken stock 

Fresh watercress for decoration, 
if desired 

Fresh or bottled horseradish, 
for serving 

1. In a large skillet heat the oil over medium-low heat. Add the 2 
finely chopped onions and cook, stirring often, until softened, about 
12 minutes. Let the onions cool for 15 minutes. While the onions are 



cooling, soak the matzos in cold water to cover for 10 minutes. Drain 
thoroughly, squeeze out the liquid, and crumble the matzo into a paste 
with your hands. 

2 . 1 n a food processor, pulse the coarsely chopped raw onion and the 
chopped carrot until finely minced, and transfer to a large mixing bowl. 
Working in 4 batches, pulse the whitefish and carp fillets, the sauteed 
onions, and the matzo until finely ground but not pureed, transferring 
the finished batches to the bowl with the onion and carrots. Stir in the 
eggs, water, sugar, 2 teaspoons of salt, and pepper to taste. Blend until 
the mixture is homogenous and a little sticky. To taste for seasoning, 
poach or saute a small fish ball. If the mixture looks too loose to shape, 
refrigerate it for about an hour, covered with plastic. 

3. Preheat the oven to 425T. with the rack set in the center. Line 
an 18 by 12-inch metal or foil roasting pan with a piece of foil. If using 
a whole fish skin with tail attached, lay it out on the foil and stuff with 
the fish mixture so it resembles a whole fish. With wet hands, shape 
any leftover mixture into oblong balls. If using a fish head, stuff it with 
some of the fish mixture, and add to the pan along with the fish balls. If 
making a loaf with a strip of skin as a decoration (see headnote), shape 
the fish mixture into a loaf approximately 16 by 6 inches on the foil and 
lay the skin along the top. Brush the top of the stuffed fish or loaf with a 
little oil. Bake until the top just begins to color, about 20 minutes. 

4. While the fish bakes, bring the fish stock to a simmer. Add enough 
hot stock to the pan with the fish to come two thirds of the way up the 
side of the fish. If there is not enough, add a little water. Add the whole 
carrots to the pan. Reduce the oven temperature to 325T., cover the top 
of the pan loosely with foil, and continue braising the fish until set and 
cooked through, about 45 minutes. Baste it with the poaching liquid 
once or twice, and turn the fish balls, if using. 

5 . Allow the fish to cool completely in the liquid, about 3 hours, cover 
with plastic, and refrigerate overnight. To serve, using two large spatu- 
las, carefully transfer it to a long serving platter, lined with watercress, if 
desired. Attach the head, if using, to the fish. Cut the carrots into slices, 
and use to decorate the top of the fish. Serve with horseradish. 




Mom's Russian “Hamburgers" 

Kotleti for lunch, kotleti for dinner, kotleti of beef, of pork, of fish, 
of chicken-even kotleti of minced carrots or beets. The entire USSR 
pretty much lived on these cheap, delicious fried patties, and when com- 
rades didn’t make them from scratch, they bought them at stores. Back 
in Moscow, Mom and I harbored a secret passion for the proletarian, 
six-kopek variety produced by the meat-processing plant named after 
Stalin’s food supply commissar, Anastas Mikoyan. Inspired by his 1936 
trip to America, Mikoyan wanted to copy Yankee burgers in Russia, 
but somehow the bun got lost in the shuffle and the country got hooked 
on mass-produced kotleti instead. Deliciously greasy, petite, and with 
a heavy industrial breading that fried up to a wicked crunch, Mikoyan 
factory patties could be scarfed down by the dozen. Wild with nostal- 
gia, Mom and I tried a million times to recreate them at home, but no 
luck: some manufactured treats just can’t be duplicated. So we always 
reverted back to Mom’s (far more noble) homemade version. 

Every ex-Soviet cook has a special trick for making juicy, savory 
patties. Some add crushed ice, others tuck in pats of butter or mix in 
a whipped egg white. My mother likes her kotleti Odessa-style (gar- 
licky!), and adds mayo as binding instead of the usual egg, with de- 
lightful results. The same formula works with ground turkey or chicken 
or fish. Buckwheat kasha makes a nostalgic Russian accompaniment. 
Ditto thin potato batons slowly pan-fried with onions in lots of butter 
or oil. I love cold kotleti for lunch the next day, with some dense dark 
bread, hot mustard, and a good crunchy dill pickle. 




Serves 4 

1V2 pounds freshly ground beef 
chuck (or a mixture of beef 
and pork) 

2 slices stale white bread, crusts 
removed, soaked for 5 minutes 
in water and squeezed 

1 small onion, grated 

2 medium garlic cloves, crushed 
in a press 

2 tablespoons finely chopped dill 
or parsley 

2V2 tablespoons full-fat 

1 teaspoon kosher salt 

V2 teaspoon freshly ground black 
pepper, or more to taste 

2 to 3 cups fine dried bread 
crumbs for coating 

Canola oil and unsalted butter, 
for frying 

1. In a mixing bowl, combine the first eight ingredients and blend 
well into a homogenous mixture. Cover with plastic wrap and refriger- 
ate for at least 30 minutes. 

2. With wet hands, shape the mixture into oval patties approxi- 
mately 3% inches long. Spread bread crumbs on a large plate or a sheet 
of wax paper. Coat patties in crumbs, flattening them out slightly and 
pressing down for the crumbs to adhere. 

3. In a large skillet heat 2 tablespoons of the oil with a pat of butter 
until sizzling. Working in batches, fry the kotleti over medium-high 
heat until golden-brown, about 4 minutes per side. Cover the pan, re- 
duce the heat to low, and fry for another 2 to 3 minutes to cook through. 
Transfer to a plate lined with paper towels. Repeat with the rest of the 
patties. Serve at once. 




Ration Cards 

As we started work on the 1940s chapter, Mother and I batted around 
various menu ideas for the decade. Maybe we’d bake millet, like my 
grandmother Liza did at the evacuation warehouse in Lenin’s birth 
town of Ulyanovsk. Or we could improvise wartime “pastries” — a slice 
of black bread with a barely there dusting of sugar. We even entertained 
recreating a banquet from the February 1945 Yalta Conference where 
the “Big Three” and their entourage feasted on quail pilaf and fish in 
champagne sauce, while the battered country half starved. 

In the end, we changed our minds: cooking just didn’t seem right. 
Instead of a recipe I offer a photo of a ration card book. Place of issue: 
Leningrad. Date: December 1941, the third month of the terrible Siege, 
which lasted nine hundred days and claimed around a million lives. 
Temperatures that winter plunged to minus thirty. There was no heat, 
no electricity, no running water in the frozen city; sewage pipes burst 
from the cold; transport stood motionless. Peter the Great’s imperial 
capital resembled a snow-covered graveyard where emaciated crowds, 
so many soon to be ghosts, lined up for their ration of bread. By De- 
cember 1941 the rations had fallen to 250 grams for industrial workers; 
for all other citizens, 125 grams — barely four ounces of something sticky 
and damp, adulterated with sawdust and cattle fodder and cellulose. 
But those 125 grams, those twenty small daily bites gotten with a puny 
square of paper, were often the difference between survival and death. 

An image like this calls for a moment of silence. 



Reproduction of a Rationing Card (ITAR-TASS/Sovfoto) 




IK xn a 

10 25rp 
X A E 6 

1 2 2 .r p 

a xn b 
9 26rp 



q XII. 
0 ! 6 rp 

ID 25 rp 

17 XII B 
1425 rp 

0 25 rp 

C *11 6 
0 25 rp 

3 XII B 
0 25 rp 


HA AEKAEPb 1941 r. 

1 J 25 rp 



9 25 rp 

CXH 6 
0 25 IP 

0 XII B 

0 29 rp 


m. n. 

ID 25 rp 

19 XII A 
1425 rp 



9 25 r p 
X A E 6 

0 25 rp 

0 XII A 
0 26 rp 


1 J 95 rn 

12 « * 

9 25rp 

h * 
U 25 rp 


' J III A 

0 26 rp 

x n E 6 

KapTOHHa npN yTcpe He eoao 6 HOB/ifitTCH 

X A E 6 | X A E i 

31 *,5 




07 XII B 
i * 25 rp 
X A E 6 

t ^ 26 rp 



’71 XII B 
41 25 rp 

* v 25 rp 

17 XHB 
II 25rp 

11 * IIB 
*4 25rp 

X A E 6 

11 XI1B 
1 1 25, p 


Q XII 6 

R XII 8 
0 25rp 

7 XII B 

4 25 rp 
X A E 5 

01 XII S 
X J1 E 6 

oq xii b 

t 02 Srp 
X A E 6 

07 XII B 
41 25rp 
X A E 6 

OR XU 6 
40 25 r p 
X A E 6 

70 XII B 
LO 25 rp 

21 ,*;■; 



I 7 XH B 
II 25 rp 


1^26 rp 

11 111 6 
II 25 rp 


Q *" 8 

0 25 rp 

« 25 rp 

0 XII B 

4 25 rp 


01 26 rp 43 25 rp 

x n e b j xaeb 

77 xii b 
LI 25 r p 
X A E B 

9 RXII 6 



70 XII B 
LO 25 rp 

01 XII B 

*9 25 rp 
X A E 6 

17 XII B 
II 25 rp 

11 *" 6 
1^ 25 rp 


11 *" 6 
II 25. p 


0 XII 6 
0 25 rp 

R XII 6 
J 2 b rp 

0 XII B 
4 25 rp 



29 Mr p 

X/IE 6 

LI 2 Jrp 
X A E B 


LJ 25 rp 

LO 25 rp 

71 XII A 
41 25rp 


1925, p 

17 XII A 

1 1 25 rp 

II * 11 * 

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Georgian Stew of Lamb, Herbs, and Vegetables 

In Soviet times, without access to travel or foreign cuisines, Russians 
turned to the Union’s exotic fringes for complex, spicy foods. Geor- 
gian food was Moscow’s de facto haute cuisine, satisfying our northern 
cravings for smoke, herbs, garlic, and bright, sunny seasoning. If you 
can forget that this might have been Stalin’s favorite dish, this soupy 
one-dish meal is a marvel. The Georgian penchant for masses of aro- 
matic herbs is on captivating display, and the meat essentially braises 
in its own herbaceous, garlicky juices, along with tender eggplants, to- 
matoes, and spuds. By tradition the stew is baked in an earthenware 
pot called chanakhi. But enamel cast iron, such as Le Creuset, or a large, 
sturdy Dutch oven will do just as well. All this stew needs is good hot 
flatbread to soak up the juices, and a sprightly salad of peppery greens. 


Serves 6 to 8 

i tightly packed cup chopped 
cilantro, plus more for serving 

i tightly packed cup chopped 
basil, plus more for serving 

i tightly packed cup chopped 
flat-leaf parsley, plus more 
for serving 

12 large garlic cloves, minced 

Kosher salt and freshly ground 
black pepper, to taste 

i teaspoon paprika, plus more 
for rubbing the lamb 

Large pinch of red pepper flakes, 
such as Aleppo, plus more for 
rubbing the lamb 

3 to 3L2 pounds shoulder lamb 
chops, trimmed of excess fat 
and halved lengthwise 

3 medium onions, quartered and 
thinly sliced crosswise 

2 tablespoons olive oil 

2 ripe plum tomatoes, chopped; 
plus 4 plum tomatoes quartered 



1V2 cups tomato juice 3 slender long Asian eggplants 

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar (10 to 12 inches long) 

Boiling water as needed 3 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, 

peeled and cut into wedges 

1. Preheat the oven to 325T. with the rack set in the lower third. 
In a mixing bowl combine the cilantro, basil, parsley, and garlic. Toss 
the mixture with Vi teaspoon of salt, generous gratings of black pepper, 
paprika, and pepper flakes. 

2. Rub the lamb chops with salt, black pepper, paprika, and pep- 
per flakes. In a mixing bowl toss the lamb with the onions. Add a large 
handful of the herb mixture and the oil, and toss to coat. 

3. Place the lamb and the onions as snugly as possible on the bot- 
tom of a very large enamel cast-iron pot with a tight-fitting lid. Set the 
pot over high heat and cook until steam begins to rise from the bottom, 
about 3 minutes. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover tightly, and cook 
until the lamb is opaque and has thrown off a lot of juice, about 12 min- 
utes. Turn the lamb, cover, and cook for 3 to 4 minutes longer. Add the 
chopped tomatoes, another handful of herbs, 1 cup of the tomato juice, 
and 1 tablespoon of the vinegar, and bring to a vigorous simmer. Cover 
and transfer the pot to the oven. Cook until the lamb is tender, 1 Vi to 
i 3 4 hours, checking periodically and adding a little water if it looks dry. 

4. While the meat cooks, place the three eggplants directly on three 
burners set over medium-high heat. Cook, turning and moving the egg- 
plants until the surface is lightly browned and begins to char in spots 
but the flesh is still firm, 2 to 3 minutes total. Watch out for drips and 
flame sparks. Using tongs, transfer the eggplants to a cutting board. 
When cool enough to handle, cut each eggplant crosswise into 4 sec- 
tions. With a small sharp knife, make a slit in each section, and stuff 
some of the herb mixture into each slit. In two separate bowls, season 
the potatoes and the quartered tomatoes with salt and a little of the 
herb mixture. 

5. Remove the lamb from the oven and stir in the potatoes, using 
tongs and a large spoon to push them gently under the meat. Add 
the remaining tomato juice and vinegar, another handful of the herb 


1950$: Chanakhi 

mixture, and enough boiling water, if needed, to generously cover the 
potatoes and meat. Scatter the eggplant sections on top, nestling them 
in the liquid. Cover and bake for 30 minutes longer. Add the tomatoes, 
scattering them on top without stirring, and sprinkle with the remain- 
ing herb mixture. Cover and bake for another 20 minutes. 

6. Raise the oven temperature to 400°F. Uncover the pot and bake 
until the juices are thickened, about 15 minutes. Remove the stew from 
the oven and let cool for 5 to 10 minutes. Serve straight from the pot, 
sprinkled with additional herbs. 




Moldovan Cornbread with Feta 

Say “ Khrushchev” and a Russian will laugh and immediately cry kuku- 
ruza (corn)! And so, in memory of Nikita “Kukuruznik” (Corn Man) 
Khrushchev and his loony crusade to hook our Union on corn, Mom 
and I wanted to prepare a maize tribute. The notion of cornbread, how- 
ever, struck Mom as odd. To a northern Slav, she insisted, bread made 
from maize sounded oxymoronic; it verged on sacrilege. Bread was sa- 
cred and bread was wheat. The breadlines that sprouted during the 1963 
crop failure helped push Khrushchev into early retirement, and after 
he’d gone, corn was either forgotten or recalled as an agricultural gag 
in northern parts of the Union. But not so in southwestern USSR, I 
reminded my mother. There cornmeal had been a staple for centuries. 
Georgians prepared it into gomi (white grits) or mchadi, griddled cakes to 
be dipped into stews. Western Ukrainians and Moldovans ate mamalyga, 
the local polenta, as their daily kasha (gruel). 

I myself discovered the bounty of the Union’s corn recipes when 
researching my book Please to the Table. And 1 fell in love with this fantas- 
tically moist, extra-savory Moldovan cornbread — enriched, local-style, 
with sour cream and tangy feta cheese. Recently, I made it for Mom. 
It came out so yummy that we ate it straight from the pan — warm and 
topped with fire-roasted red peppers. Mom recalled how in breadless 
1963 she’d thrown out a bag of cornmeal someone had given her. What 
am I to do with this yellow sawdust? she’d wondered back then. Well, now she 
knows. Here’s the recipe. 


J96os: Cornbread for Khrushchev 


Serves 6 

2 large eggs, lightly beaten 

2 cups milk 

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, 
melted, plus more for greasing 
the pan 

Vi cup sour cream 

2 cups fine yellow cornmeal, 
preferably stone-ground 

3 4 cup all-purpose flour 

1 teaspoon sugar 

2 teaspoons baking powder 
Vi teaspoon baking soda 

2 cups grated or finely crumbled 
feta cheese (about 12 ounces) 

Roasted red pepper strips for 
serving, optional 

1. Preheat the oven to 400T. with the rack set in the center. In a 
large bowl, thoroughly stir together the first four ingredients. In an- 
other bowl sift together the cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder, 
and baking soda. Whisk the dry ingredients into the egg mixture until 
smooth. Add the feta and whisk to blend thoroughly. Let the batter 
stand for 10 minutes. 

2. Butter a 9 by 9 by 2-inch baking pan. Pour the batter into the 
pan and tap to even it out. Bake the cornbread until light golden and 
firm to the touch, 35 to 40 minutes. Serve warm, with roasted peppers, 
if desired. 




Russian Potato Salad with Pickles 

Sine qua non of socialist celebrations, this salady Soviet icon actually 
has a fancy, bourgeois past. The name? Derived from one Lucien Olivier, 
a French chef who wowed 1860s Moscow with his swank L’Hermitage 
restaurant. The Gaul’s original creation, of course, had almost nothing 
in common with our Soviet classic. His was an extravagant still life of 
grouse, tongue, and crayfish tails encircling a mound of potatoes and 
cornichons, all doused with le chef’s secret Provencal sauce. To Olivier’s 
horror, Russian clients vulgarized his precious arrangement by mixing 
up all the ingredients on their plates. And so he retooled his dish as a 
salad. Then came 1917. L’Ffermitage was shuttered, its recipes scorned. 
All Soviet children knew Mayakovsky’s jingle: “Eat your pineapples, 
gobble your grouse j Your last day is coming, you bourgeois louse!” 

The salad gained a second life in the mid-i930s when Olivier’s 
old apprentice, a chef known as Comrade Ivanov, revived it at the 
Stalin-era Moskva Hotel. Revived it in Soviet form. Chicken replaced 
the class-enemy grouse, proletarian carrots stood in for the original pink 
of the crayfish, and potatoes and canned peas took center stage — the 
whole drenched in our own tangy, mass-produced Provansal mayo. 

Meanwhile, variations of the salad traveled the world with White 
Russian emigres. To this day, I’m amazed to encounter it under its ge- 
neric name, “Russian salad,” at steakhouses in Buenos Aires, railway 
stations in Istanbul, or as part of Korean or Spanish or Iranian appe- 
tizer spreads. Amazed and just a little bit proud. 

At our own table, Mom gives this Soviet staple an arty, noncon- 
formist twist by adding fresh cucumbers and apple, and substituting 
crabmeat for chicken (feel free to stay with the latter). The ultimate key 
to success, though, she insists: chopping everything into a very fine dice. 
She also obsessively doctors Hellmann’s mayo with various zesty addi- 
tions. I think Lucien Olivier would approve. 


i970s: Salat Olivier 


Serves 6 


3 large boiling potatoes, peeled, 
cooked, and diced 

2 medium carrots, peeled, 
cooked, and diced 

1 large Granny Smith apple, 
peeled and diced 

2 medium dill pickles, diced 

I medium seedless cucumber, 
peeled and finely diced 

3 large hard-cooked eggs, chopped 

One i6-ounce can peas, 

l A cup finely chopped scallions 
(with 3 inches of the green tops) 

!4 cup finely chopped dill 

12 ounces lump crabmeat, flaked; 
or surimi crab legs, chopped 
(or substitute chopped poached 
chicken or beef) 

Kosher salt and freshly ground 
black pepper, to taste 


1 cup Hellmann’s mayonnaise, 
or more to taste 

Yj cup sour cream 

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice 

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard 

i teaspoon white vinegar 

Kosher salt to taste 

1. In a large mixing bowl combine all the salad ingredients and sea- 
son with salt and pepper to taste. 

2. In a medium bowl, whisk together all the dressing ingredients, 
season with salt, and taste: it should be tangy and zesty. Toss the salad 
thoroughly with the dressing, adding a little more mayo if it doesn’t 
look moist enough. Adjust the seasoning to taste. Serve in a cut-crystal 
or glass bowl. 




Borscht with Beef, Mushrooms, Apples, and Beans 

I o my childhood palate, borshch (as Russians spell borscht) was less a 
soup than a kind of Soviet quotidian destiny: something to be endured 
along with Moscow tap water and the endless grayness of socialist win- 
ter. Our Soviet borshch took on various guises. There was the private 
borshch, such as Mom’s frugal vegetarian version, endearing in its mo- 
notony. There was the vile institutional soup of canteens, afloat with 
reddish circles of fat. In winter we warmed our bones with limp, hot 
borshch, the culinary equivalent of tired February snow. In summer 
we chilled out with svekolnik, the cold, thin borshch popularized here in 
America by Eastern European Jews. 

Parallel to all these but ever out of reach was another soup: the 
mythical “real” Ukrainian borshch we knew from descriptions in State- 
approved recipe booklets authored by hack “gastronomic historians.” Ap- 
parently that borshch was everything ours wasn’t. Thick enough to stand a 
spoon in, concocted in myriad regional permutations, and brimming with 
all manner of meats. Meats! That borshch represented the folkloric propa- 
ganda Ukraine, our wholesome Soviet breadbasket and sugarbeet bowl, 
envisioned as though never clouded by the horrors of famine and collec- 
tivization. Not once during my childhood did I taste anything like this 
chimerical “real” Ukrainian borshch. Neither was I that interested, really. 

It was the dinner my dad, Sergei, prepared to impress Mom during 
our 1987 Moscow reunion that changed my mind. Convinced me that 
borshch could be something exciting. Never in my life had I tasted any- 
thing like Dad’s masterpiece, with its rich meaty broth, the deep gar- 
net color achieved by juicing the beets, the unconventional addition of 
mushrooms and beans, the final savory flourish of pork cracklings. Even 
after sampling many authentic regional versions on my subsequent trips 
to Ukraine, I still hold up Dad’s borshch as the Platonic ideal. 


198 os : Dad’s Uber-Borshch 

Here’s his recipe. My only tweak is to replace fresh beet juice with 
baked beets, which deliver the same depth of color. A rich homemade 
stock makes the soup special, but if the effort seems like too much, omit 
the first step, use about n cups of store-bought chicken stock in Step 
3, and instead of boiled beef, add about a pound of diced kielbasa or 
good smoky ham. Like most peasant soups, borshch improves mightily 
on standing, so make it a day ahead. A thick slice of pumpernickel or rye 
is a must. Ditto a dollop of sour cream. 


Serves 70 to 12 

2 pounds beef chuck, shin, or 
brisket in one piece, trimmed 
of excess fat 

14 cups water 

2 medium onions, left whole, 
plus 1 large onion, chopped 

2 medium carrots, left whole, plus 
1 large carrot, peeled and diced 

1 bay leaf 

Kosher salt and freshly ground 
black pepper 

2 medium beets, washed and 

1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms, 

rinsed of grit, and soaked in 
1 cup hot water for 1 hour 

2 slices good smoky bacon, finely 

1 large green pepper, cored, 
seeded, and diced 

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, 
plus more as needed 

2 cups chopped green cabbage 

1 teaspoon sweet paprika 

3 medium boiling potatoes, peeled 
and cut into i-inch chunks 

I 16-ounce can diced tomatoes, 
with about half of their 

1 small Granny Smith apple, 
peeled, cored, and diced 

One 16-ounce can kidney beans, 
drained and rinsed 

3 large garlic cloves, minced 

2 tablespoons finely chopped 
flat-leaf parsley 

2 tablespoons distilled white 
vinegar, or more to taste 

2 tablespoons sugar, or more 
to taste 

For serving: sour cream, 
chopped fresh dill, and thinly 
sliced scallions 



1. Combine beef and water in a large stockpot and bring to a boil 
over high heat. Skim and reduce heat to low. Add the whole onions and 
carrots and the bay leaf and season with salt and pepper to taste. Sim- 
mer partially covered, until the meat is tender, about 1V2 hours. Strain 
the stock, removing the meat. You should have It to 12 cups of stock. 
Cut the beef into T/i-inch chunks and reserve. 

2. While the stock cooks, preheat the oven to 400°F. Wrap the beets 
separately in aluminum foil and bake until the tip of a small knife slides 
in easily, about 45 minutes. Unwrap the beets, plunge them into a bowl 
of cold water, then slip off the skins. Grate the beets on a four-sided 
box grater or shred in a food processor. Set aside. Strain the mushroom 
soaking liquid and save for another use. Chop the mushrooms. 

3. In a large, heavy soup pot, cook the bacon over medium-low heat 
until crispy. Remove with a slotted spoon and reserve. To the bacon 
drippings, add the chopped onion, mushrooms, diced carrot, and green 
pepper, and cook until softened, about 7 minutes, adding a little butter 
if the pot looks dry. Add the remaining butter and cabbage, and cook, 
stirring, for another 5 minutes. Add the paprika and stir for a few sec- 
onds. Add the stock, potatoes, tomatoes with their liquid, apple, and 
the reserved beef, and bring to a gentle boil. Skim off any froth, season 
with salt to taste, cover, and simmer over low heat until potatoes are 
almost tender, about 15 minutes. Stir in half of the reserved beets and 
the beans, and add a little water if the soup looks too thick. Continue 
cooking over medium-low heat until all the vegetables are soft and the 
flavors have melded, about 25 minutes more. (The borshch can be pre- 
pared a day ahead up to this point. Reheat it slowly, thinning it out with 
a little water if it thickens too much on standing.) 

4. Before serving, use a mortar and pestle and pound the garlic and 
parsley with 1 teaspoon of ground black pepper to a coarse paste. Add 
to the simmering soup along with the reserved bacon, the remaining 
beets, vinegar, and sugar. Adjust the seasoning and simmer for another 
5 minutes. Let the borshch stand for 10 minutes. To serve, ladle the 
soup into serving bowls, add a small dollop of sour cream to each por- 
tion, and sprinkle with dill and scallions. Invite the guests to mix the 
sour cream well into their soup. 




Central Asian Rice, Lamb, and Carrot Pilaf 

I never ate more bizarrely than I did during the Soviet Union’s last 
winter in 1991. The economy was going to hell; food would be nonexis- 
tent in one place, then, thanks to some mysterious black-market forces, 
plentiful just up the road. Rattling around the collapsing empire in our 
ramshackle Zhiguli cars, my ex-boyfriend and I fasted one minute and 
feasted the next. Of the feasts, my favorites occurred in the Uzbek/ 
Tajik city of Samarkand (where market forces have always been potent). 
There you could count on smoky kebabs from rickety stalls, ambrosial 
melons piled up in wagon beds, and at people’s houses, always an aro- 
matic festive palov mounded high on a blue and white ceramic platter. 
Outside, the world was coming unstitched; inside Samarkand homes we 
sat on low cushions sipping tannic green tea, scooped up delicious yel- 
low rice (with the left hand, as tradition demanded), and nodded along 
politely to nationalist proclamations that Tajik pilaf was infinitely bet- 
ter than Uzbek pilaf— or vice versa. The proclamations didn’t make 
sense. But eating the rice did. 

A feast of cumin-spiced lamb and rice steamed together until every 
spoonful is as eloquent as an Omar Khayyam quatrain, palov enjoys 
such ritual status in Central Asia that florid legends of its conception 
involve Alexander the Great or, in certain versions, Genghis Khan. The 
dish is prepared according to a strict code, traditionally by men (and 
often for men) and over an open fire. But it’s also fabulous when made 
in a home kitchen, and super easy to boot. The soul of the dish is zirvak, 
a base of lamb and masses of onions and carrots. (To this mix feel free 
to add some cubed quince, a handful of raisins, and/or a cup of canned 
chickpeas.) The spices are spare and eloquent: doses of sweet and hot 
pepper, a whole garlic head, and barberries, the tiny dried berries with 
a sharp lemony flavor. (Look for them at Middle Eastern markets.) 



Short' or medium-grained rice is then layered on top, and everything 
steams to perfection in a Turkic nomadic kettle called kazan, for which 
you can substitute any heavy pot with a tight-fitting lid. 

Palov is best enjoyed with a couple of zesty, salady Central Asian 
sides. One is a slaw of shredded sweet daikon radish and carrots dressed 
with white vinegar, a touch of oil, and a pinch of sugar. For the other es- 
sential accompaniment, thinly slice I large onion, 2 large green peppers, 
and 3 large ripe tomatoes, and layer them in a shallow bowl, seasoning 
the layers with salt and pepper and sprinkling them with mild olive oil 
and red wine vinegar. Let the salad stand while the palov cooks. Tannic 
green tea, in small cup-bowls, is the classic Central Asian beverage, but 
we Russians also pour vodka. 


Serves 6 to 8 

3 tablespoons canola or mild 
olive oil, or more as needed 

2V2 pounds lamb shoulder with 
some fat and just a few bones, 
cut into i-inch chunks 

Kosher salt and freshly ground 
black pepper, to taste 

2 large onions, chopped 
1V2 tablespoons cumin seeds 
1V2 teaspoons paprika 
Two large pinches cayenne 
Large pinch of turmeric 

3 to 4 tablespoons barberries 
(available at some Middle 
Eastern markets), optional 

3 large carrots, peeled and 
coarsely grated 

2 cups medium-grain rice, rinsed 
in several changes of water and 

3*A cups boiling water 

1 whole garlic head, outer layer 
of skin removed 

See headnote for accompaniments 

1. In a large, heavy casserole, preferably with an oval bottom, heat 
the oil until smoking. Rub the lamb generously with salt and pepper. In 
2 to 3 batches, brown the lamb well on all sides, transferring the 
browned pieces to a bowl. Once all the lamb is browned, add the onions 
and a little more oil if necessary and cook, stirring until well-browned, 


J990S: Palov 

about 7 minutes. Return the lamb to the pot, reduce the heat to low, and 
stir in the cumin, paprika, cayenne, turmeric, and barberries, if using. 
Season generously with salt, cover, and simmer for 15 minutes, adding 
a little water if the lamb begins to burn. Thoroughly stir in the carrots 
and cook for another 1 to 2 minutes. Adjust the seasoning. 

2. Flatten the surface of the lamb mixture with the back of a large 
spoon. Pour rice over the meat and bury the garlic head in it. Place a 
small lid or a heatproof plate directly on top of the rice (so as not to 
disturb the arrangement of rice and meat when adding water). Pour in 
the boiling water in a steady stream. Being careful not to burn yourself, 
remove the lid or the plate. Taste the liquid and add salt if necessary. 
Cook the rice uncovered without stirring over medium-low heat until 
the liquid is level with the rice and small bubbles appear on the surface, 
about 15 minutes. 

3. With a spatula, gather the rice into a mound and make 6 to 7 holes 
in it with the back of a long wooden spoon for steam to escape. Reduce 
the heat to the absolute lowest, place a Flame Tamer if you have one 
under the pot, cover tightly, and let the rice steam until tender, about 25 
minutes. Check 2 or 3 times and add a little bit of water into the holes 
in the rice if there doesn t seem to be enough steam. Remove from heat 
and let stand, covered, for 15 minutes. 

4. To serve, spread the rice on a large festive serving platter, fluffing 
it slightly. Arrange the meat and vegetables in a mound over it, top- 
ping with the garlic head. Serve the tomato and grated radish salads 


The Twenty-first Century 


Russian Pancakes with Trimmings 

Finally the kitchen maid appeared with the blini . . . Risking a severe burn, 
Semyon Petrovich grabbed at the two topmost (and hottest) blini, and deposited 
them, plop, in his plate. The blini were deep golden, airy, and plump —just like 
the shoulder of a merchant’s daughter . . . Podtikin glowed with delight and 
hiccupped with joy as he poured hot butter all over them. . . . With pleasurable 
anticipation, he slowly, painstakingly, spread them with caviar. To the few patches 
not covered with caviar he applied a dollop of sour cream ... All that was left was 
to eat, don’t you think? But no! Podtikin gazed down at his own creation and was 
still not satisfied. He rejected a moment and then piled onto the blini the fattest 
piece of salmon, a smelt, and a sardine, and only then, panting and delirious, he 
rolled up the blini, downed a shot of vodka, and opened his mouth . . . 

But at this very moment he was struck by an apoplectic fit . . . 

— Anton Chekhov, from On Human Frailty: 

An Object Lesson for the Butter Festival 

Our book journey ended; the time came for our very last feast. Mom 
and I decided to hold an ironic wake for the USSR. And what do Rus- 
sians eat at commemorations and wakes? They eat blini. Coming full 
circle to our first chapter, we once again read Chekhov while a yeast 
sponge bubbled and rose in a shiny bowl on Mom’s green faux-granite 
counter. Yeast for our farewell blini. 

Blini has always been the most traditional, ritualistic, and ur-Slavic 
of foods— the stuff of carnivals and divinations, of sun worship and an- 
cestral rites. In pre-Christian times, the Russian life cycle began and 
ended with blini— from pancakes fed to women after childbirth to the 
blini eaten at funerals. “Blin is the symbol of sun, good harvest, harmo- 
nious marriages, and healthy children,” wrote the Russian poet Alexan- 
der Kuprin (blin being the singular of blini). 


The Twenty-first Century: Blini 

To a pagan Slav, the flour and eggs in the blini represented the fer- 
tility of Mother Earth; their round shape and the heat of the skillet 
might have been a tribute to Yerilo, the pre-Christian sun god. Even 
in Soviet days, when religion was banned, Russians gorged on blini not 
only at wakes but also for Maslenitsa, the Butterweek preceding the 
Easter Lent. They still do. Religions come and go, regimes fall, sushi 
is replacing seliodka (herring) on post-Soviet tables, but blini remain. 
Some foods are eternal. 

Authentic Russian blini start with opara, a sponge of water, flour, 
and yeast. The batter should rise at least twice, and for that light sour- 
dough tang I chili it for several hours, letting the flavors develop slowly. 
Russian blini are the diameter of a saucer, never cocktail-size, and these 
days people prefer wheat to the archaic buckwheat. Most babushkas 
swear by a cast-iron skillet, but I recommend a heavy nonstick. Frying 
the blini takes a little practice: “The first blin is always lumpy,” the Rus- 
sian saying goes. But after three or four, you’ll get the knack. 

The accompaniments include— must include!— sour cream and 
melted butter, herring, smoked salmon and whitefish, and caviar, if 
you’re feeling lavish. Dessert? More blini with various jams. 


Serves 6 to 8 

i package active dry yeast 
(2V4 teaspoons) 

1 cup warm water 

3 tablespoons, plus 2 teaspoons 

2V4 cups all-purpose flour, 
plus more as needed 

2V2 cups half-and-half or milk, 
at room temperature 

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, 
melted, plus more for brushing 
the blini 

2 teaspoons salt, or more to taste 

2 large eggs, separated, 
yolks beaten 

Canola oil for frying 
1 small potato, halved 

For serving: melted butter, 
sour cream, at least two kinds 
of smoked fish, caviar or 
salmon roe, and a selection 
of jams 



1. In a large mixing bowl, stir together yeast, water, and 2 teaspoons 
sugar and let stand until foamy. Whisk in Vi cup of flour until smooth. 
Place the sponge, covered, in a warm place until bubbly and almost dou- 
bled in bulk, about I hour. 

2. Into the sponge beat in the half-and-half, 4 tablespoons melted 
butter, 2V4 cups flour, egg yolks, the remaining 3 tablespoons sugar, and 
salt. Whisk the batter until completely smooth and set to rise, covered 
loosely with plastic wrap, until bubbly and doubled in bulk, about 2 
hours, stirring once and letting it rise again. Alternatively, refrigerate 
the batter, covered with plastic, and let it rise for several hours or over- 
night, stirring once or twice. Bring to room temperature before frying. 

3. Beat the egg whites until they form soft peaks and fold them into 
the batter. Let the batter stand for another 10 minutes. 

4. Pour some oil into a small shallow bowl and have it ready by the 
stove. Skewer a potato half on a fork and dip it into the oil. Rub the bot- 
tom of a heavy 8-inch nonstick skillet with a long handle liberally with 
the oil. Heat the pan over medium heat for 1V2 minutes. Using a pot- 
holder, grip the skillet by the handle, lift it slightly off the heat, and tilt 
it toward you at a 45-degree angle. Using a ladle quickly pour enough 
batter into the skillet to cover the bottom in one thin layer (about 
*4 cup). Let the batter run down the skillet, quickly tilting and rotating 
it until the batter covers the entire surface. Put the skillet back on the 
burner and cook until the top of the blin is bubbly and the underside 
is golden, about 1 minute. Turn the blin and cook for 30 seconds more, 
brushing the cooked side with melted butter. If the skillet looks dry 
when you are turning the blin, rub with some more oil. The first blin 
will probably be a flop. 

5. Make another blin in the same fashion, turn off the heat and stop 
to taste. The texture of the blin should be light, spongy, and a touch 
chewy; it should be very thin but a little puffy. If a blin tears too easily, 
the consistency is too thin: whisk in V4 cup more flour into the batter. If 
the blin is too doughy and thick, whisk in V4 to Vi cup water. Adjust the 
amount of salt or sugar to taste, and continue frying. 

6. Repeat with the rest of the batter, greasing the pan with the oiled 
potato before making each blin. Slide each fried blin into a deep bowl. 


The Twenty-first Century: Blini 

keeping the stacked cooked blini covered with a lid or foil (see note). 
Serve the blini hot, with the suggested garnishes. To eat, brush the blin 
with butter, smear with a little sour cream if you like, top with a piece of 
fish, roll up, and plop into your mouth. 


Blini are best eaten fresh. If you must reheat, place them, covered with 
foil, in a bain marie in the oven or in a steamer. Or cover a stack with a 
damp paper towel and microwave on high for I minute. 



This is a work of nonfiction, woven from family anecdotes and historical 
facts spanning ten decades of Soviet and post-Soviet experience. To the 
best of my knowledge, everything here is true, albeit filtered, at times, 
through the subjectivities of the protagonists. A handful of names have 
been changed; a few others might have been misremembered. For the 
sake of brevity and narrative drama some personal events have been 
compressed and rearranged slightly. I’ve done my best to check personal 
recollections and family myths against larger historical accounts, and 
to properly reconstruct dates, events, and political contexts. However, 
some of the people I portray are now elderly, while others are no longer 
with us, and I apologize for any undetected inaccuracies. 



I owe this book to Scott Moyers, who conceived it long before I did, 
gave it a name, found the dream editor for it as my agent, and continued 
to guide me even after his job profile changed. Comrade, my first salut 
is to you. 

Since Scott left, Andrew Wylie has been a tower of inspiration, en- 
couragement, and wise counsel every step along the way. Also at the 
Wylie Agency deep thanks to Jin Auh, and to Tracy Bohan for taking 
the book on its global adventure. 

At Crown a boundless Slavic spasibo to editor-extraordinaire Rachel 
Klayman— for her passion, intelligence, rigor, and her deep, transform- 
ing empathy for the Soviet experience and this author’s journey. Enor- 
mous gratitude to Maya Mavjee and Molly Stern for their publishing 
brilliance; Elina Nudelman and Elena Giavaldi for the beautiful visu- 
als; Rachel Rokicki, Carisa Hays, Annsley Rosner, Anna Mintz, and 
Jay Sones for their incisive publicity and marketing efforts; and Ada 
Yonenaka and Emma Berry for making everything run so smoothly. 

Even while taking a book leave from journalism, I was still lucky 
to bask in the generosity and friendship of my extraordinary magazine 
family. At Travel+Leisure my deepest appreciations to our genius editor 
in chief, Nancy Novogrod, and the beautiful talented Nilou Motamed. 
At Food & Wine love and cheers to the always-inspiring Dana Cowin and 
the awesome Kate Krader. An article about my mother’s dinners for 
Saveur was one of the sparks that inspired the book. For this, and more 
besides, I thank James Oseland and the Saveur editorial team. 

Suzanne Rafer and the late Peter Workman of Workman Publish- 
ing will always have a special place in my heart for launching me into 
the food writing world. 



In Moscow I’m dearly indebted to Viktor Belyaev, ex-Kremlin chef 
and ur-raconteur; to Daria Hubova for putting me and Mom on TV; 
and to Irina Glushchenko and her indispensable book for educating me 
about Anastas Mikoyan. 

My Russian clan has been a source of nurture and a joy: Dad, Sergei 
Bremzen, and his wife, Elena Skulkova; Aunt Yulia; sestrichki Dasha and 
Masha (and Masha’s husband, Sergei), my brother, Andrei, and Nady- 
ushka Menkova, the beloved von Bremzen family archivist. 

On these shores blagoiarnost’ to Anna Brodsky (and Clava) for astute 
reads and precious communal apartment lore; and to Alexander Genis 
for his erudition and passion — and epicurean feats. 

This book is imagined as a meal that spans decades of the Soviet ex- 
perience. Our real meals wouldn’t mean much without the company of 
Irina Genis, Andrei and Toma Zagdansky, and Alex and Andrea Bayer. 
A separate Sovetskoye Shampanskoye toast to Katerina Darrier, Maria 
Landa-Neimark; Innessa Fialkova; Elena Dovlatova; Isolda Goro- 
detsky; and Svetlana Kupchik for bringing Soviet past to such vivid life 
at Mom’s table in Queens; and to Mark Serman for “fables.” Among 
the non-Russians: huge hugs to Kate Sekules for always encouraging me; 
Melissa Clark for being an angel; Mark Cohen for sharing his archival 
access; Peter Canby, Esther Allen, Nathaniel Wice, and Virginia Elat- 
ley for reading; Jonas and EJrsula Elegewisch for their sparkle and style; 
and to all other pals in New York, Moscow, and Istanbul who fed me, 
listened to me, and lifted my spirits. 

Larisa Frumkin is the soul and star of this book. Mamulik : you’re my 
everlasting hero and role model. This book is yours. 

Finally every word on these pages owes something to Barry Your- 
grau, my partner, reader, editor, literary adviser, best friend, and true 
love. Without him this book would be a sad murky nowhere. Ditto my 



What follows is by no means an exhaustive list of the book-length 
nonfiction sources, both English and Russian, that I have consulted 
and/or quoted for this book, in addition to works of fiction, memoirs, 
magazine and newspaper articles, and reliable online materials. Sources 
that have been helpful to me across several chapters are cited in the 
earliest chapter. For the Russian titles I have relied on the standard 
Library of Congress transliteration system, which differs slightly from 
the more informal one used in the main text of the book. 


Borrero, Mauricio. Hungry Moscow: Scarcity and Urban Society in the Russian 
CivilWar, 1917—1921. New York: Peter Lang, 2003. 

Giharovskii, Vladimir. Moskva i moskvichi. Moscow: Moskovskii rabochii, 

Giants, Musya, and Joyce Toomre. Food in Russian History and Culture. 
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997. 

LeBlanc, Ronald D. Slavic Sins of the Flesh: Food, Sex, and Carnal Appetite in 
Nineteenth-Century Russian Fiction. Durham: University of New Hampshire 
Press, 2009. 

Lih, Lars T. Bread and Authority in Russia, 1914 — 1921. Berkeley: University of 
California Press, 1990. 

McAuley, Mary. Bread and Justice: State and Society in Petrograd, 1917—1922. 
Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991. 


Selected Sources 

Pokhlebkin, Viliam. Kukhniaveka. Moscow: Polifakt, 2000. 

Suny, Ronald G., ed. The Cambridge History of Russia, Volume 3: The Twentieth 
Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 20 06. 


Ball, Alan M. Russia’s Last Capitalists: TheNepmen, 1921-1929. Berkeley: 
University of California Press, 1987 - 

Benjamin, Walter. Moscow Diary. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University 
Press, 1986. 

Boym, Svetlana. Common Places: Mythologies of Everyday Life in Russia. 
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994. 

Buchli, Victor. An Archaeology of Socialism. New York: Berg, 1999. 

Elwood, Carter. The Non-Geometric Lenin: Essays on the Development of the 
Bolshevik Party 1910-1914. London-New York: Anthem Press, 2011. 

Genis, Aleksandr. Kolobok. Kulinarnye puteshestviya. Moscow: Corpus, 2010. 

Hessler, Julie. A Social History of Soviet Trade: Trade Policy, Retail Practices, and 
Consumption, 1917-1953 . Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004. 

Kondrat’eva, Tamara. Kormit’ i Pravit ’ O Vlasti v Rossti XVI— XX Veka, 

Moscow: ROSSPEN, 2009. 

Martin, Terry. The Affirmative Action Empire : Nations and Nationalism in the 
Soviet Union, 1923-1939. Ithaca-London: Cornell University Press. 2001. 

Massed, G. J. The Surrogate Proletariat: Moslem Women and Revolutionary 
Strategies in Soviet Central Asia, 1919-1929. Princeton, NJ: Princeton 
University Press, 1974. 

Osokina, Elena. Zafasadom stalinskogo izobiliya. Raspredelenie i rynok v snabzhenii 
naseleniyav gody industrializatsii, 1927-1941. Moscow: ROSSPEN, 1999 

Tumarkin, Nina. Lenin Lives! The Lenin Cult in Soviet Russia. Cambridge, MA: 
Harvard University Press, 1983. 

Viola, Lynne. Peasant Rebels under Stalin: Collectivization and the Culture of Peasant 
Resistance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. 


Selected Sources 


Balina, Marina, and Yevgeny Dobrenko, eds. Petrified Utopia: Happiness 
Soviet Style. London & New York: Anthem Press, 2009. 

Fitzpatrick, Sheila. Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: 
Soviet Russia in the 1930s. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. 

Glushchenko, Irina. Obshchepit: Anastas Mikoian i sovetskaiakukhnia. Moscow: 
GUVShE, 2010. 

Gronow, Jukka. Caviar with Champagne: Common Luxury and the ideals of the 
Good Life in Stalins Russia. New York: Berg, 2003. 

Kniga 0 vkusnoi i zdorovoi pishche. Moscow: Pishchepromizdat, 1939, 1952, 

1953. 1954. and 1955. 

Korenevskaya, Natalia, and Thomas Lahusen, eds. Intimacy and Terror. Soviet 
Diaries of the 1930s. New York: New Press, 1995. 

Mikoyan, Anastas. Takbylo. Razmyshlemia 0 minuvshem. Moscow: Vagrius, 

Petrone, Karen. Life Has Become More Joyous, Comrades: Celebrations in the Time 
of Stalin. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000. 


Berezhkov, Valentin. Stranitsi diplomaticheskoi istorii. Moscow: 
Mezhdunarodnye otnosheniia, 1987. 

Glantz, David M. The Siege of Leningrad: 900 Days of Terror. London: Brown 
Partworks, 2001. 

Jones, Michael. Leningrad: State of Siege. New York: Basic Books, 2008. 

Lure, V. M„ and V. Ia. Kochik. GRU delailiudi. St. Petersburg: Olma- 
Press, 2003. 

Moskoff, William. The Bread of Affliction: The Lood Supply in the USSR During 
World War II. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990. 

Murphy, David E. What Stalin Knew: The Enigma of Barbarossa. New Haven: 
Yale University Press, 2005. 


Selected Sources 

Pleshakov, Constantine. Stalin’s Folly. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005. 

Plokhy, Serhii. Yalta: The Price of Peace. New York: Viking, 2010. 

Salisbury, Harrison E. The goo Days: The Siege of Leningrad. New York: Avon 
Books, 1970. 

Snyder, Timothy. Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. New York: 
Basic Books, 2010. 


Djilas, Milovan. Conversations with Stalin. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1963. 

Medvedev, Roy, and Zhores Medvedev. The Unknown Stalin: His Life, Death, 
and Legacy. New York: Overlook Press, 2004. 

Montefiore, S. S. Stalin : The Court of the Red Tsar. London: Weidenfeld & 
Nicolson, 2003. 

Nikolaev, Vladimir. Sovetskaia Ochered’ Kak Sreda Obitaniia: Sotsiologicheskii 
Analiz. Moscow: IN ION RAN, 2000. 

Rappaport, Helen. Joseph Stalin: A Biographical Companion. Santa Barbara: 
ABC'CLIO, 1999. 

Zubok, Vladislav. Zhivago’s Children: The Last Russian Intelligentsia. Cambridge: 
Harvard University Press, 2009. 


Carlson, Peter. K Blows Top: A Cold War Comic Interlude Starring Nikita 
Khrushchev, Americas Most Unlikely Tourist. New York: Public Affairs, 2009. 

Castillo, Greg. Cold War on the Home Front: The Soft Power of Midcentury Design. 
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010. 

Crowley, David, and Susan E. Reid, eds. Socialist Spaces: Sites of Everyday Life 
in the Eastern Bloc. Oxford: Berg, 2002. 

Khrushchev, N. S. Vospominaniia. Vremia, liudi, vlast’. Vols. 1-4. Moscow: 
Moskovskie novosti, 1999. 

Taubman, William. Khrushchev: The Man and His Era. New York: W. W. 
Norton, 2003. 


Selected Sources 

Vayl , Petr, and Aleksandr Genis. 6o-e: Mir sovetskogo chelovekct. Moscow: 
Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 1996. 


Ledeneva, Alena. Russia’s Economy of Favours: Blat, Networking and Informal 
Exchange. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. 

Yurchak, Alexei. Everything Was Forever Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet 
Generation. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006. 


Herlihy, Patricia. The Alcoholic Empire: Vodka and Politics in Late Imperial Russia. 
New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. 

Transchel, Kate. Under the Influence: Working-Class Drinking, Temperance, and 
Cultural Revolution in Russia, 1895-1932. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh 
Press, 2006. 

White, Stephen. Russia Goes Dry: Alcohol, State and Society. Cambridge: 
Cambridge University Press, 1996. 


Felshman, Neil. Gorbachev, Yeltsin and the Last Days of the Soviet Empire. New 
York: St. Martin’s, 1992. 

Kahn, Jeffrey. Federalism, Democratization, and the Rule of Law in Russia. Oxford: 
Oxford University Press, 2002. 

Kapuscinski, Ryszard. Imperium. New York: Knopf, 1994. 

Moskoff, William. Hard Times: Impoverishment and Protest in the Perestroika 
Years. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1993. 

Nekrich, A. M„ trans. George Saunders. The Punished Peoples: The Deportation 
and Fate of Soviet Minorities at the End of the Second World War. New York: W. W. 
Norton, 1978. 

O’Clery, Conor. Moscow, December 25, 1991: The Last Day of the Soviet Union. 
New York: Public Affairs, 2011. 


Selected Sources 

Remnick, David. Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire. New York: 
Random House, 1993. 

Ries, Nancy. Russian Talk: Culture and Conversation During Perestroika. Ithaca, 
NY: Cornell University Press, 1997. 

Suny, Ronald G. The Revenge of the Past: Nationalism, Revolution, and the Collapse 
of the Soviet Union. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993. 

Von Bremzen, Anya, and John Welchman. Please to the Table: The Russian 
Cookbook. New York: Workman, 1990. 


Devyatov, Sergei, Yu. Shefov, and S. Yur’eva. Blizhnyaya dacha Stalina: Opyt 
istoricheskogo putevoditelya. Moscow: Kremlin Multimedia, 2011. 



Anya von Bremzen grew up in Moscow, where she played piano, 
black-marketeered Juicy Fruit gum at her school, and acted in Soviet 
films. In this country, after getting an MA from the Juilliard School, she 
has established herself as one of the most accomplished food writers of 
her generation: the winner of three James Beard awards; a contributing 
editor at Travel+Leisure magazine; and the author of five acclaimed 
cookbooks, among them The New Spanish Table , The Greatest Dishes: 
Around the World in 80 Recipes, and Please to the Table: The Russian Cookbook 
(coauthored with John Welchman). Anya contributes regularly to Food 
esf Wine and Saveur and has written for The New Yorker, Departures, and 
the Los Angeles Times. Her magazine work has also been anthologized in 
several of the Best Food Writing compilations. Fluent in four languages, 
Anya lives in Queens, New York, and has an apartment in Istanbul. 




0 01 00 7931880 3 


grandmother J i;c.a, .vho made a perilous odyssey to icy, 
blockaded Le.v\ \g; :.\c to find Naum during World War 
II. We meet Anya - ) m i-drinking, sarcastic father, Ser- 
gei, who abandons his family shortly after Anya is born; 
and we are captivated by Larisa, the romantic dreamer 
who grew up dreading the black public loudspeakers 
trumpeting the glories of the Five-Year Plan. Their sto- 
ries unfold against the vast panorama of Soviet history: 
Lenin’s bloody grain requisitioning. World War II hun- 
ger and survival, Stalin’s table manners, Khrushchev’s 
kitchen debates, Gorbachev’s disastrous anti-alcohol 
policies. And, ultimately, the collapse of the USSR. And 
all of it is bound together by Anya’s passionate nostal- 
gia, sly humor, and piercing observations. 

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking is that rare book 
that stirs our souls and our senses. 


is one of the most accom- 
plished food writers of her 
generation: the winner of 
three James Beard awards; 
a contributing editor at 
Travel + Leisure magazine; 
and the author of five ac- 
claimed cookbooks, among 
them The New Spanish 
Table and Please to the Table: The Russian Cookbook 
(coauthored by John Welchman). She contributes 
regularly to Food & Wine and Saveur and has written 
for The New Yorker, Departures, and the Los Angeles 
Times. She divides her time between New York City 
and Istanbul. 


Jacket design: Lisa Horton 
Jacket illustration: Claudia Pearson 
Av.Vh . photograph: John von Pamer 

#C (- iSHERS ■ NEW YORK • 9/13 

Printed in the U.SA 



(Matfebinq tho&ltt of SOVIET COOKING 

“The funniest and truest book I’ve read about Russia in years. Ms. von Bremzen had the 
brilliant idea of transporting us back to the Soviet era of her youth by way of its hilarious, soulful, 
mayonnaise-laden, doctrinally approved cuisine. This is both an important book and a delight.” 


“I don’t think there’s ever been a book quite like this; I couldn’t put it down. Warm, smart, 
and completely engaging, this food-forward j ourney through Soviet history could only 
have been written by someone who was there. Part memoir, part cookbook, part social history, 
this gripping account of Anya von Bremzen’s relationship with the country she fled 
as a girl is also an unsentimental but deeply loving tribute to her mother. 

Unique and remarkable, this is a book you won’t forget.” 


“A delicious, intelligent book. When I read it, I can taste the food but also the melancholy, 
tragedy, and absurdity that went into every bit of pastry and borscht.” 


“I have delighted in Anya von Bremzen’s writing for decades. But her prose is at its tangiest, 
richest, and tastiest in these pages, when she writes about her childhood in the USSR. 
Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking is as much a history of Soviet life as it is a personal story. 
Both narratives are provocative and delicious, and both are worth telling your children.” 


“Three cheers for Anya Von Bremzen’s poignant, vivid, often hilarious book about 
trying to survive— and have a square meal— in the last decades of the Soviet Union. 

The author’s acute political perceptiveness, mordant wit, and notable culinary expertise 
keep the reader delightfully engaged throughout.” 


“Anya’s description of the saltiness in vobla is as poignant and image-filled 
as her reflection on a life that started out one way, but ended up in a better place by chance 
and fate. Her experience of growing up a child of two different worlds tells the 
beautiful tale of so many American immigrants.” 


U.S. $26.00/$30.00 CAN 


ISBN 978-0-307-88681-1 

9 780307 886811 

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